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Washington State recommends endangered status for Puget Sound orcas

By Elizabeth M. Gillespie
Associated Press Writer

Seattle Post-Intelligencer

1st March 2004

The Washington state Department of Fish and Wildlife proposed Monday that Puget Sound's orcas be added to the state list of endangered species "because the marine mammals are at critically low levels and are vulnerable to several continuing threats."

The department made the recommendation based on a recent status report indicating that the population of "southern resident" killer whales in Puget Sound and nearby waters has declined 18 percent since 1995.

"The solid scientific work reflected in this report gives us an excellent base on which to assess the health of our resident orca population and determine what the next steps should be to protect one of the most enduring symbols of Puget Sound and the Pacific Northwest," said Jeff Koenings, the department's director.

The "southern residents" that swim in waters off Washington state and British Columbia include 84 orcas - down from a historical high of more than 120 in the 1960s, before the whales were captured in large numbers for display at marine parks.

The L pod, one of three groups of southern residents, has seen both higher mortality rates and lower birth rates, particularly in the past decade, according to the department's status report.

Scientists point to a decline in salmon, the orcas' main source of food, as well as accumulations of PCBs and other toxic chemicals in the water and stress from whale-watching boats and other vessels.

The Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission, a nine-member citizens panel that sets policy for the Department of Fish and Wildlife, is expected to take action on Monday's proposal at its April 1-3 meeting in Spokane.

A state listing would trigger a recovery plan that would guide efforts to protect the killer whales. Southern resident orcas are listed as "depleted" under the U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act, which also requires a recovery plan for the species.

"The state's roles and responsibilities would complement, not replace, those of the federal agencies," Koenings said. "We want to operate from a clear understanding of the science so as to not duplicate the federal recovery plan."

Rocky Beach, a Fish and Wildlife spokesman, said the agency would also work closely with Department of Fisheries and Oceans officials in Canada, where the orca is listed as endangered.

In June 2002, the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service ruled that southern residents did not warrant Endangered Species Act protection because they were not a "significant population segment."

Federal officials said they based their decision on the best available science, but environmentalists cried foul, saying NMFS relied on a species classification that dates back to the mid-1700s.

Last December, U.S. District Judge Robert Lasnik of Seattle ordered NMFS to reconsider its listing decision, rejecting the government's notion that transient offshore populations of orcas might fill the gap if southern residents went extinct.

"I think the federal government has to use tortured logic not to list the population," said Fred Felleman, director of the Friday Harbor-based Orca Conservancy, one of several groups that filed the lawsuit that led to Lasnik's ruling.

Because southern residents don't breed with other killer whales, they are genetically distinct and thus meet the threshold for Endangered Species Act protection, Felleman said.

"These animals are finely tuned to the tides and the movement of the salmon through these waters, and that makes them an integral part of what makes the Puget Sound so special."

NMFS spokesman Brian Gorman declined to comment on the state's recommendation. "We are proceeding down a road to re-examine whether under federal law, orcas can or should be listed," Gorman said. "We expect to finish that task by December."