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Activists sue U.S. over orcas' status

By Martin Mittelstaedt
Environment reporter – The Globe & Mail

29th May 2003

Killer whales on Canada's endangered list but lack same protections south of border

Killer whales living off the West Coast near Victoria and the adjacent waters of the United States are considered among the world's endangered sea mammals, at least when they're swimming in Canadian waters.

Canada classified the strikingly pigmented black-and-white orcas as endangered in 2001 after the population plunged to 79 from 99 in 1995.

In the United States, it's a different story. The same whales Canada considers at risk of extinction swim freely to U.S. waters, where the Bush administration decided in 2002 against placing them on its endangered list.

Environmentalists on both sides of the border are trying to use legal action to force the U.S. government to designate this group of whales endangered.

Recent genetic research in Canada has found that the orcas off the southern B.C. coast, which scientists call the southern resident population, probably have not interbred much with other populations of their species for thousands of years. These whales generally don't breed with orcas living further north in the Pacific, or with transient orcas that roam all along the West Coast.

Protecting rare animals is always difficult, but it is even more challenging when a population's habitat is shared between two countries that don't see eye to eye on the creatures' plight.

"Canada and the United States have to co-operate in conserving and implementing management measures that will help protect them," said Peter Ross, a marine mammal toxicologist at the federal Institute of Ocean Sciences in Sidney, B.C. "It's a small, isolated population with many human threats at their doorstep."

U.S. conservation groups began court action late last year seeking to overturn a controversial decision by the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service against classifying the whales as endangered. The service concluded that, while the mammals were at risk of extinction, the population did not warrant special status.

The Western Canada Wilderness Committee and the Georgia Strait Alliance joined the lawsuit yesterday, filing a friend-of-the-court brief arguing that Canadian wildlife biologists were right to classify the southern resident population as endangered.

An endangered designation is a powerful way to help imperilled species or subspecies because it requires a country to make habitat preservation a priority and to draft conservation plans to ensure the species doesn't die out.

Some U.S. environmentalists say the Bush administration is reluctant, for political reasons that have little to do with science, to classify a high-profile whale as endangered.

"I think it's ideological hostility to the Endangered Species Act and that is driving a decision against the listing of charismatic species," said Patti Goldman, a lawyer with Earth Justice, a U.S. public-interest legal group in the orca lawsuit.

The Canadian decision to list the whales was made after their numbers dropped unexpectedly in the late 1990s.

Since the early 1970s, when capture of wild orcas for marine amusement parks ended, the whale population had been making a slow recovery, from 70 in 1976 to 99 in 1995.

But since 1995, the numbers have plunged to only 79. Several explanations have been offered.

High levels of hormone-disrupting pollutants, such as polychlorinated biphenyls, may be inhibiting the whales' reproductive success. The concentrations of PCBs in the whales off southern British Columbia are double those of the endangered belugas on the other side of Canada in the St. Lawrence River, Mr. Ross said.

The whales may also be suffering from the recent depletion of salmon, the mainstay of their diet.

Some researchers even fret that whales are suffering from overexposure to humans, who come by the thousands to view them from tour boats, the noise of which may disrupt feeding. About 100 whale-watching boats are in the area.

Environmentalists say efforts to save the whales will be doomed unless the mammals are protected throughout their range.

"All the work that happens in Canada will probably be for naught," said Margot Venton, of the Sierra Legal Defence Fund. "You need consistent actions on both sides of the border."