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Orcas called 'depleted'

An orca enjoys a salmon it captured -
An orca enjoys a salmon it captured
— image credit:

While nobody seems to disagree that the orca whales that frequent the San Juan area — and were recently spotted off Whidbey Island — are in trouble, there’s an ongoing clash between environmental groups and the federal government about what to do about it.

But Thursday, National Marine Fisheries Service took a step that has some orca supporters cautiously optimistic. The agency officially published a notice in the federal register announcing a proposed rule to designated the southern resident stock of killer whales as “depleted” under the federal Marine Mammal Act.

“I’m encouraged,” said Susan Berta of the Whidbey-based Orca Network, “that basically the depleted status is resulting in the same kind of process that would have happened under the (Endangered Species Act.)”

The Orca Network hosted a meeting Wednesday night on Whidbey Island at which people from the Fisheries Service spoke about what the designation means, ongoing scientific research and the status of the whale population.

The message from Brent Norberg, marine mammal coordinator for the Northwest Region of the Fisheries Service, was that the actual effect of the “depleted designation” depends on community input, scientific findings and federal funding.

“If you saw the State of the Union (address) last night, “ Norberg said, “you know that we’re competing with other priorities to get funding right now.”

Berta was part of a coalition that filed a petition with the federal government in 2001 to list the orcas under the Endangered Species Act. In a controversial ruling, the Fisheries Service found that the whale population does not qualify for protection under the Endangered Species Act, though the agency conceded that the orcas do face extinction in the next century.

The question is whether the southern resident orcas, the group of fish-eating whales that reside mainly in the San Juans and Puget Sound, are a distinct enough population. There are groups of orcas, also called killer whales, living all over the world. In fact, orcas have the broadest distribution of any mammal. Yet the southern residents are genetically different from other orcas and do not interbreed or interact with whales outside their own group.

Three types

of killer whales

There are three main types of killer whales in the north part of the Pacific Ocean: residents, transients and offshore. Little is known about the offshore orcas. The transient orcas are also hard to track since they move around unpredictably and change pod membership. They eat mainly marine mammals, like seals, sea lions and even other whales. These are the orcas that made recent headlines for hanging out in Hood Canal.

There are also northern and southern residents orcas in the Pacific Northwest. The so-called southern residents consists of three pods — J, K and L — and reside mainly in the San Juans and Puget Sound. Scientists believe they eat salmon and other fish almost exclusively. They are genetically different than all other whales and even have their own dialect of vocalization.

The bad news is that the southern resident population declined by 20 percent in the last six years, reaching a low point of 80 orcas. Norberg said historic data puts the normal population size at between 140 to 200 animals. Extremely high levels of toxins, especially PCBs, were detected in dead orcas.

In the ruling on the Endangered Species Act, Berta said the federal agency found that the southern residents were a discreet, but not a distinct, population. “It came down to a technicality between discreet and distinct,” Berta said.

In other words, National Marine Fisheries Service found that the extinction of the particular “stock” of whales would not affect the worldwide population of orcas. The agency even predicted that other orcas may take over the territory when the southern residents are gone.

Efforts continue for “endangered”

But there is hope for those who want to protect the orcas. A coalition, not including the Orca Network, is suing the Fisheries Service over the decision not to list the southern residents as endangered. The Orca Network and many other groups have petitioned to have the three pods listed as endangered under the state law.

With the recent announcement, National Marine Fisheries is moving ahead with plans to list Puget Sound’s declining resident orca population as “depleted” under the Marine Mammal Act. The Marine Mammal Act “doesn’t have as much teeth” as the Endangered Species Act, Berta said, but it is modeled after the older legislation. One major difference is that the Marine Mammal Act doesn’t allow for third-party lawsuits — suing a polluter on behalf of the orcas, for example — as the Endangered Species Act does.

Norberg said the next step will be a 60-day comment period on the proposal to designate the orcas as depleted. He said the agency expects to publish the final rule on the southern residents’ status by the end of June. After that, the agency is required, under law, to create a conservation plan “as soon as possible.”

According to Norberg, the Fisheries Service plans to hold a series of public meetings to gather input for the conservation plan. He said the meetings will likely be divided into a series of specific issues affecting the whales’ health, such as toxins in the water.

Berta said she hopes the actual management plan includes public education, stricter laws regarding industrial pollution, as well as strong measures to expediate the cleanup of polluted underwater sediment.

Scientists have a lot to learn

Meanwhile, scientists will be continuing research on the orcas. Linda Jones, deputy director of the Northwest Fisheries Science Center (the scientific arm of Fisheries Service), told the crowd of about 30 people near Coupeville Wednesday that researchers still have much to learn about the southern residents, even though they have been closely watched for the last 30 years. They don’t even know where the pods normally go in the winter.

Jones said scientists obviously need to identify what is causing the decline in whale population.She said the agency has listed the top four suspected risk factors, which are environmental contaminants, prey (salmon) availability, oil spills and vessel or acoustic disturbances.

Also, work continues on the taxonomy of orcas. Researchers are comparing the morphology of orca skulls at museums. A scientist in London is comparing the DNA of orcas from around the globe. Both of these projects will help researchers decide whether or not the southern resident orcas are a distinct and discreet population.

And if the data shows this, Norberg said there is always the chance that the whales could still be listed as endangered someday.

“Science is just beginning to understand the orcas,” Berta said. “We feel encouraged that (National Marine Fisheries) hasn’t totally written off an (Endangered Species Act) listing.”

You can reach News-Times reporter Jessie Stensland at jstensland@whidbeynewstimes.com or call 675-6611.

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