A whale once shot at as a menace to fishermen but now viewed as synonymous with Northwest waters may get the full protection of the federal government with yesterday's announcement...

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A whale once shot at as a menace to fishermen but now viewed as synonymous with Northwest waters may get the full protection of the federal government with yesterday’s announcement that the orcas plying Puget Sound should be listed as threatened.

The decision by the National Marine Fisheries Service to propose the threatened status reverses a two-year-old ruling by the agency that a group of orcas, known as the Southern Residents, aren’t different enough from orcas worldwide to be considered for protection under the Endangered Species Act.

It represents a victory for environmental and whale-protection groups that have taken up the distinctive black-and-white mammal as a charismatic mascot with Hollywood appeal, and a key indicator of problems in the region’s waters.

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They hope invoking the federal Endangered Species Act will result in closer scrutiny of human activities that might harm the orcas, including boat traffic, use of toxic chemicals, oil shipping and refining, piping of wastewater into Puget Sound and construction near the shoreline.

“I think this should give the orcas hope and the people of Puget Sound hope,” said Patti Goldman, an attorney for the environmental group Earthjustice, one of the groups that sued the fisheries service over its earlier decision not to list the whales.

But government officials said the listing is largely symbolic because orcas already enjoy protections under state, federal and Canadian law, and existing protections for threatened salmon will overlap with the whales’ needs. Unlike the Endangered Species Act listing of local salmon runs, this decision appears to have produced little anxiety among industries that could be affected.

“For the average Joe there won’t be much change,” said Bob Lohn, head of the fisheries service’s Northwest office.

The service will take public comment on the proposal for 90 days, and it plans to hold two public hearings about the proposed listing, Feb. 17 in Seattle and Feb. 28 in Friday Harbor, San Juan County. It has up to a year to reach a final decision about declaring the whales threatened.

The Southern Resident orcas, which summer in Puget Sound, the Strait of Juan de Fuca and around Vancouver Island, had declined from 99 whales in 1995 to a low of 79 in 2001, according to the Center for Whale Research. However, they rebounded to 85 this year.

The precipitous decline in the late 1990s alarmed orca advocates and scientists, who fear the animals — which breed slowly and live up to 80 years — could be devastated by further losses. Scientists suspect toxic chemicals that concentrate in the creature’s blubber, as well as boat noise and a decline in salmon runs that are a staple of the orca’s diet, may be to blame for the recent losses.

Often the focus of media coverage, orcas — commonly known as killer whales — were once reviled as man-killers and a plague to fishermen, who would at times shoot at them. Then in the 1960s and early 1970s, the population was decimated when large numbers were captured for display at amusement parks.

The local orcas are some of the most closely scrutinized marine animals in the world. Each individual mammal has a scientific name and a nickname, such as Luna. Their personalities have been detailed, their ages recorded and their genetic makeup analyzed.

But much about the whales remains a mystery. It’s unknown where many of the Southern Residents spend the winter, for example. Even the question of whether the Southern Residents constitute a unique group separate from other killer whales has been disputed.

The fisheries service in 2002 said the Southern Residents didn’t qualify for the Endangered Species Act because the whales were simply part of the worldwide species of orcas. Environmental groups and whale advocates successfully challenged that decision in federal court, forcing the government to reconsider and leading to yesterday’s announcement that the Southern Residents are a distinct subspecies.

The Southern Residents already are classified as an endangered species by Washington state and as “depleted” under the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act, and are covered by the Canadian equivalent of the Endangered Species Act, or ESA. State, federal and Canadian officials have been crafting plans to help the orcas under those laws.

“Our recovery efforts are already under way for these killer whales,” Lohn said in a statement. “We’ve had workshops and consulted with experts on development of a conservation plan, essentially identical to the recovery plan that an ESA listing would require.”

Under current regulations, orca whales can’t be killed or captured. The Navy in Puget Sound has agreed not to use sonar while killer whales are nearby, in response to fears the sonar disturbs them, Lohn said.

There will be some differences if the ESA listing happens, Lohn said. Federal agencies would have to consult with the fisheries service before taking any action that could affect the whales, such as issuing a federal permit for a pier being built in the Sound, or allowing cleanup of contaminated sediment. Many of those activities already undergo scrutiny because of salmon, Lohn said. But underwater noise could be a new issue with the whales, he said.

Bill Kidd, a spokesman for BP, a petroleum company that ships oil from Alaska through orca waters to its Cherry Point refinery near Bellingham, said the orca listing isn’t on his radar.

“If there is going to be an impact on our operations, we certainly haven’t identified it,” he said.

Tom McMillen, who owns a commercial whale-watching business in the San Juan Islands, said he would welcome restrictions on whale-watching to limit growth of the industry. But he acknowledged not all companies would agree.

Environmentalists tick off a list of activities that should get a closer look to protect orcas, including oil tankers and boating. A major oil spill is considered one of the biggest potential threats to survival of these orcas.

Toxic chemicals are another top issue. Scientists say these orcas are among the most contaminated whales on Earth, riddled with long-lived toxins that travel up the food chain.

Municipal sewer systems, pulp mills and other operations that pipe wastewater into the orcas’ habitat may need closer scrutiny for whales than for salmon, said Brent Plater, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental group. Cleanup of toxic underwater sites also may need to meet stricter thresholds for orcas, he said.

Warren Cornwall: 206-464-2311 or wcornwall@seattletimes.com