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Legal challenge aims to protect Puget Sound killer whales

27th May 2003


SEATTLE, Washington

Environmentalists asked a federal judge last week for a summary judgment in a lawsuit that aims to force the Bush administration to afford the fullest protections possible to save Puget Sound's Southern Resident killer whales. The environmental groups and activists are fighting the administration's determination that this population of the species is not "significant," a ruling that precludes protection for the whales under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA).

The lawsuit, filed against the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), came in response to the agency's July 1, 2002 determination that it would not list the Southern Residents under the ESA, even though agency biologists determined that the Southern Residents are going extinct.

"The Fisheries Service has scientists making legal determinations, lawyers sequestering scientific data, and Bush's appointed bureaucrats making determinations on whether a species lives or goes extinct," said Stephanie Buffum, executive director of Friends of the San Juans. "The Puget Sound resident orcas need and deserve our help now, and that is why this lawsuit is necessary."

The lawsuit was filed by Earthjustice and the Center for Biological Diversity, on behalf of Earth Island Institute, Ocean Advocates, Orca Conservancy, Friends of the San Juans, People for Puget Sound, former five-term Secretary of State Ralph Munro and Karen Munro.

Environmentalists say that over the past six years, the Puget Sound's Southern Resident killer whales have declined nearly 20 percent, leaving only 78 individuals in the population at the end of the 2001 survey year.

This is the latest salvo in a long running legal battle over protecting this population of killer whales, or orcas. In response to a petition for listing from a collation of conservation groups, NMFS determined in a ruling issued July 1, 2002 that this population was a discrete group in danger of extinction, but found that the whales were not "significant."

After this decision, the agency began to consider whether the Southern Residents were "depleted" under a different statute, the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA). But conservationists contend that depleted status under the MMPA cannot address the threats facing the Southern Residents.

"The 'depleted' designation will not be effective, because it is only useful to address threats such as unsustainable harvest levels and fishery bycatch," said Brent Plater of the Center for Biological Diversity.

Neither of those threats are impacting the Southern Residents, the conservationists say, rather it is water pollution, decline in salmon prey and human disturbances from vessel traffic and noise.

"This is the first time an agency has tried to avoid protecting a species by claiming that the species is insignificant," said Kathy Fletcher, executive director of People for Puget Sound. "If the Bush administration could get past its scorn for environmental protections, it would realize that saving the Southern Residents is not only good for our ecology, but also Puget Sound's economy."