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Dying killer whale family wins protection
By Doug O’Harra

Anchorage Daily News

4th June 2004

PRINCE WILLIAM SOUND: New rule also provides study to determine whether group can be saved.

A family of Prince William Sound killer whales that has lost more than half its members will now get special federal protection and a study to find out whether it can be saved from extinction.

The National Marine Fisheries Service designated the seal-eating AT1 group as a depleted stock under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. The rule, posted in the Federal Register this morning, takes effect July 6.

"The number of animals in this group has dramatically decreased since 1989 to the point where this particular stock of killer whales may disappear from the ocean," said Dr. James Balsiger, Alaska regional fisheries administrator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

"We need to see what we can do to aid their recovery," he said in a written announcement.

"It's very real that these animals are depleted," said Homer whale biologist Craig Matkin, who has studied these whales for more than two decades and documented their steady decline.

"Whether it's too late to do anything about it, it's really important that attention be called to this. It reaffirms again that killer whale populations are fragile and need to be monitored."

The 22-member whale family was once so well known and regular in its habits that mariners from Cordova to Seward had given several animals names. Unlike most other killer whales that eat only marine mammals, all of the AT1 whales were seen almost every year. They regularly prowled the Sound and Kenai fjords areas for harbor seals and porpoises, making distinctive siren like calls when not hunting.

But several individual whales were photographed swimming through oil spilled by the Exxon Valdez tanker in the Sound in 1989, Matkin said, and a startling decline began.

Since 1990, 14 of the whales have either washed up dead or disappeared. Matkin and associates at the North Gulf Oceanic Society and the Alaska SeaLife Center confirmed seven surviving AT1 whales last summer in Aialik Bay of Kenai Fjords National Park near Seward. A yet unidentified AT1 whale washed up dead on Latouche Island last year. One whale from the family could still be alive but has not been seen in more than a year, Matkin said.

Over the same period, tissue samples have shown several of the whales carrying some of the highest levels of industrial contaminants ever measured in marine mammals. Their favourite prey, harbor seals, has been declining too.

The AT1 whales haven't produced any new calves in more than 20 years and have never been seen to mingle with other mammal-eating killer whales. No other killer whale group or pod is known to have undergone such a drastic decline, according to biologists.

Fearing the group would die out without people taking action, the National Wildlife Federation and six other conservation and Native groups filed a petition in 2002 asking the agency to list them.

"It's a first step that the agency can take for figuring out the causes of the decline and hopefully coming up with a plan to avoid extinction," said Pat Lavin, with the federation in Anchorage. "It may be that nothing stops their extinction -- that's entirely possible. But I don't think that's a reason not to take basic steps as stewards of the area."

A key decision came when an agency review of genetics, behaviour and ecology showed that the AT1 whales had been isolated from other North Pacific whales for hundreds of years and qualified as a separate stock under the law. The AT1 group had earlier been considered part of a larger population of transient, or mammal-eating, whales that numbers about 346.

Brent Plater, an attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity and a sponsor of the petition, called the decision remarkable.

"Up until this point, the agency hadn't been willing to consider that transient killer whales weren't this large amorphous unit," Plater said. "Today, for the first time, they've recognized that this is not the case, that killer whales are much more complex."

The agency will now consult with biologists and citizens to outline the best next step for the AT1 group. It could include writing a detailed research and management plan, said Kaja Brix, head of protected resources for the agency in Alaska.

"We'll need to see what, if any, steps there are to help the population recover," said federal biologist Bridget Mansfield, who will coordinate AT1 conservation plan.

Matkin said the agency should try to find out whether the whales need certain bays to survive. Others have suggested investigations into declining seal numbers, or exposure to boat traffic and noise.

But some factors -- like industrial contaminants that concentrate near the top of the marine food chain -- may be difficult to solve locally.

Daily News reporter Doug O'Harra can be reached at do'

Follow the links for more information on killer whales.

More info on this depleted group of whales:

National Marine Fisheries Service AT1 announcement: