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Group seeks federal protection for orcas

Thursday, November 14, 2002


Eight conservation groups are asking the federal government to list killer whales in Prince William Sound as depleted under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

A depleted listing would require the National Marine Fisheries Service to study what can be done to stem the decline.

''There's a group of whales going extinct in Prince William Sound, and I don't think people realize that,'' said Pat Lavin, with the National Wildlife Federation, one of the groups seeking the action. Listing them as depleted would be an essential first step toward preventing further harm, he said.

The request concerns a group of killer whales known as the AT1 group, which lost 13 of 22 members over the past 13 years.

A depleted listing would require the National Marine Fisheries Service to figure out if something could be done to help the animals.

The groups filing the petition say it also would draw dramatic attention to the worldwide problem posed by the spread of industrial pollutants and pesticides banned in the United States but still produced in Asia.

''I don't necessarily think we can stop these animals from going extinct, but this will raise awareness of the sensitivity of these animals,'' said Craig Matkin, the region's leading killer whale researcher, with the North Gulf Oceanic Society of Homer. ''If there are outside influences that can be manipulated to help these animals, this is the way to do it.''

The AT1 killer whales once stalked harbor seals in the remote bays of Prince William Sound and Kenai fjords with a regularity rarely seen among the marine mammal-eating orcas known as transients.

Researchers often saw all 22 members of the group every season and recognized their eerie sirenlike calls. Several animals were so well known they had been named by Cordova mariners.

Then the decline began. Up to nine killer whales were lost in the years following the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989, when several AT1 killer whales were videotaped swimming through rafts of crude and were never seen again.

Over the same period, the number of harbor seals numbers crashed in the Gulf of Alaska, plunging by more than 80 percent.

Boat traffic and underwater noise increased. The killer whales didn't produce any new calves and never mingled with other Alaska transient killer whales.

Tissue samples have found
some of the highest levels of industrial poisons ever recorded in marine mammals. A whale that beached and died near Cordova in 2000 had concentrated PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, at 370 parts per million and the pesticide DDT at about 470 parts per million in its tissues -- one of the most contaminated marine mammals ever tested.

''We're concerned about the high contaminant loads that these whales have. With a listing and a conservation plan, (NMFS biologists) can explore some of the sources of the contaminants and look at ways to reduce them,'' said Michelle Wilson, of the Alaska Center for the Environment.

The fisheries service has up to 90 days to rule on whether the petition has merit, said Michael Payne, manager of protected resources for NMFS in Alaska.

One critical step will be to decide whether the AT1 animals qualify as a separate stock from other marine-mammal-eating whales in the Eastern North Pacific, an issue scientists have been discussing for years, said Paul Wade, head of the cetacean assessment and ecology program at the Alaska Fisheries Science Center in Seattle.

Transient killer whales are thought to number 346 in a range stretching from California to the Gulf of Alaska. But work by Matkin and other biologists have found AT1 killer whales to be genetically different with behavior and calls that set them apart from other transient killer whales in the Gulf of Alaska.