The decision reverses a two-year-old ruling by the agency that this group of orcas, known as the southern residents, aren't different enough from orcas worldwide to be considered an endangered species.

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The National Marine Fisheries Service announced today that it is recommending that the orcas that ply the Puget Sound should be listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.


The decision reverses a two-year-old ruling by the agency that this group of orcas, known as the southern residents, aren’t different enough from orcas worldwide to be considered an endangered species.


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


They hope invoking the federal Endangered Species Act will result in closer scrutiny of a lengthy list of human activities that might harm the whales, including boat traffic, use of toxic flame retardants, oil shipping and refining, dam operations and construction near the shoreline.


But government officials have said the listing is largely symbolic because the whale already enjoys protections under Washington, U.S. and Canadian law. Unlike the declaration of local salmon runs as threatened, this decision appears to have produced little anxiety among industries that could be affected.


The southern-resident orcas, which summer in the Puget Sound, the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and around Vancouver Island, have declined from 99 whales in 1995 to 85 in 2004, according to the Center for Whale Research.


The fisheries service plans to hold two public hearings about the proposed listing, in Seattle Feb. 17 and at Friday Harbor Feb. 28.