January 25, 2008

Plan to Save Puget Sound’s Killer Whales

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries Service released its final recovery plan for Puget Sound's killer whales today, saying the plan to help restore the population of the region's iconic marine mammals to healthy levels will be a long-term effort requiring community support.

The Puget Sound killer whale population was listed for protection under the federal Endangered Species Act in late 2005, and the agency's recovery plan is a requirement of that listing. 

The plan identifies ongoing conservation programs and calls for action in a variety of areas, including improving availability of prey by supporting salmon restoration in the region, reducing pollution and contamination in the Sound, and monitoring the effects of vessel traffic and underwater noise.  

Killer whales, which are actually the world's largest variety of dolphin, are found in every ocean.  Males, generally larger than females, can reach close to 30 feet at maturity and weigh more than 15,000 pounds.   Puget Sound killer whales are officially known as Southern Residents, and usually appear in May, with some remaining into the fall  before most leave for the open ocean in the winter months. 

From 1996 to 2001 the population experienced an alarming decline of almost 20 percent, when only 79 whales were counted. Today's population stands at 88, however it was 97 during it's peak during the 1990s.  

The goal of the new recovery plan is to enable the whales to be taken off the endangered species list by helping their numbers grow to about 155 whales in 2029.   If the plan succeeds in helping the population reach 113 by 2015, the whales could be listed as threatened, a less severe category under the federal Endangered Species Act.

The fisheries agency said availability of prey, pollution and effects from vessels and sound are major threats to the whales' health.  Also, the whales have an inherently small population size and are vulnerable to oil spills.  However, there is considerable uncertainty regarding which of the many threats were most responsible for the decline in population or which may be most important to address for recovery.

Environmentalists said the plan was a move in the right direction, but said more needed to be done.

Heather Trim, who coordinates People for Puget Sound\'s orca campaign, told Associated Press, "The plan as a whole confirms that we\'re on the path toward extinction for orcas if we just continue with business as usual. They\'ve done an excellent job of recording what the threats are and the status of orcas."

However, Trim said the plan doesn't provide enough details and specific benchmarks, "We would have like to have seen more specific actions," she told AP, such as details about how many salmon are needed to feed the orcas and specific benchmarks for reducing toxic pollution.  However, she complimented the plan\'s approach to oil spills and its request for permanent funding for an oil spill rescue tug at Neah Bay.

Fred Felleman, Northwest consultant for Friends of the Earth, told AP the final plan fixed one "gross omission" from a previous draft of the plan, and now recognizes the importance of working with tribal governments on orca recovery.  But he added the plan doesn\'t address Pacific Coast waters where the whales spend the winter and give birth to most of their calves.

The agency said recovery of the Southern Resident killer whales requires cooperation from West Coast communities from California to British Columbia. The plan was developed with help from federal and state agencies, tribes, non-profit groups, industries, the academic community and concerned citizens, and was closely coordinated with the state of Washington and the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

Ongoing research programs, conducted by NOAA Fisheries and others, are providing important information that will help implement and update the agency's plan in the future.

For their part, state and local governments are taking some action on the issue.   A bill to restrict whale watching in Washington\'s waters was approved by the state House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee yesterday.  If approved, the measure would prohibit whale watching boats from getting within 300 feet of an orca.

The federal government is also studying new restrictions on vessels near orcas.


On the Net:

The full National Marine Fisheries Service plan can be viewed here.

Additional information about NOAA and the NOAA Fisheries Service can be found at www.noaa.gov, and www.nmfs.noaa.gov.