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Local orcas depleted not endangered

An endangered listing for the southern resident pods of orcas is not warranted according to the National Marine Fisheries Service because the animals do not qualify as a separate species. NMFS said they may warrant a "depleted " classification under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA). The Center for Biological Diversity had requested a threatened or endangered listing under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in May 2001. NOAA WEB SITE


NOAA Fisheries Takes Steps to Protect Killer Whales Agency Determines that ESA Listing Not Presently Warranted

posted 06/26/02
The National Marine Fisheries Service (NOAA Fisheries), announced today that it will take steps to protect a population of killer whales (Orcinus orca) that summers in Washington state’s Puget Sound. NOAA Fisheries managers said they will immediately seek federal protection for the orcas, and will follow well defined steps to halt the population’s decline.

NOAA Fisheries, an agency of the Commerce Department’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), is one of the federal agencies responsible for protecting marine mammals and determining protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

"We are taking the decline of these killer whales seriously and we will work to sustain and support this population," said Bob Lohn, head of the NOAA Fisheries northwest regional office.

The NOAA Fisheries steps to help protect Puget Sound killer whales include:

  • Starting the process to declare the stock as "depleted," a classification that would give it greater federal protection.

  • Soliciting public comment about additional protections needed to stop the southern residents’ decline.

  • Improving whale-watching guidelines. Such steps would be made in consultation with Canadian authorities.

  • Committing to a reassessment of these whales under the Endangered Species Act within the next four years.

Although historically the southern resident population has been small, in recent years scientists have seen it fall from a high of 97 animals in 1996 to approximately 78 last year. At a conference sponsored by NOAA Fisheries in 2001, killer-whale experts attributed the decline to depleted food sources, the effects of pollution and whale watching.

In spite of these low numbers, a biological review team assembled by NOAA Fisheries said that even if the 1992-2001 population decline continued that there would be a slightly greater than 10 percent chance that the southern resident population would become extinct in the next 100 years. If the population data starting in 1974 is used to make the same prediction, the scientists said the risk of extinction by 2101 would fall to as little as one percent.

In May 2001, the California-based Center for Biological Diversity and 11 other groups petitioned NOAA Fisheries to list Puget Sound killer whales – known by scientists as the southern population of resident killer whales – under the Endangered Species Act.

"While these animals are in trouble, there is not sufficient justification to list the Puget Sound population under the ESA," explained Lohn. When they are considered as a part of the larger group of North Pacific killer whales, there is no risk of extinction for the population according to the NOAA Fisheries biological review team's report. The general killer whale population in the North Pacific is regarded as healthy.

The Endangered Species Act allows the government to list individual species or subspecies, but also "distinct population segments" as well. A joint policy, signed in 1996 by NOAA Fisheries and the US Fish and Wildlife Service, another federal agency with wide-spread responsibility under the ESA, declares such sub-groups must not only be separate or "discretev” from the overall population, they must be "significant" as well. NOAA Fisheries convened a team of scientists and killer-whale biologists to examine the killer whale’s status and make a recommendation about listing. It determined that the Southern Resident killer whales constitute neither a "species," "subspecies" nor "distinct population segments" as defined by the ESA. Current scientific classification, the scientists said, categorizes all killer whales as a single global species with no recognized subspecies.

Lohn noted, however, that the validity of a single-species classification for killer whales has been questioned by some taxonomists – scientists who study the principles of scientific classification – and is currently under review by scientists world wide. "Any changes in the species’ classification may warrant a reassessment of our ESA findings," he added. The familiar black-and-white killer whales, and all marine mammals in the United States, are protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act – a law that among other things forbids killing or harming marine mammals. NOAA Fisheries is dedicated to protecting and preserving our nation’s living marine resources through scientific research, management, enforcement, and the conservation of marine mammals and other protected marine species and their habitat.

Orcas are one step closer to endangered species listing

posted 08/08/01
The National Marine Fisheries Service (NOAA fisheries) will put together a biological review team of killer whale experts to try to determine if the local orcas are a distinct population segment as defined by Endangered Species Act. The group will try to find out why the whale's population is declining and will make a recommendation about whether the agency should formally propose an ESA listing. The report will be completed in May 2002. This is the first in a series of steps which could lead to ESA listing by 2003.

The NOAA fisheries was asked to consider an ESA listing by the Center for Biological Diversity in May, 2001. Local groups -- The Whale Museum, Orca Conservancy and the Friends of the San Juans were co-petitioners.

"We take very seriously the recent declines in killer whale populations and are determined to find out what's causing it," said Donna Darm, the acting head of NOAA fisheries Northwest regional office in Seattle. "Accepting this petition to conduct the review is an important first step in determining an appropriate course of action."

The three pods which make up the resident whale population in Puget Sound have dropped from a population high of 99 in 1995 to 78 this year.

Mark Anderson, executive director of Orca Relief Citizens' Alliance noting the loss of breeding whales said, "It's great news, but we shouldn't take comfort in it. It can take up to five years (to go through the ESA listing process). I don't think we have five years."

Orcas Population 1976-2001

1976 71
1977 79
1978 79
1979 81
1980 83
1981 81
1982 78
1983 76
1984 74
1985 77
1986 81
1987 84
1988 85
1989 85
1990 89
1991 92
1992 92
1993 97
1994 96
1995 99
1996 97
1997 92
1998 89
1999 85
2000 82
2001 78

National Marine Fisheries Service
Northwest Region

These questions and answers are from the NMFS Web site.

Killer Whale Questions and Answers

  1. Are there different kinds of killer whales in Puget Sound?
    All killer whales are members of the toothed whale family and belong to the same genus and species, Orcinus orca. However, there are two forms of killer whale found in Puget Sound, called residents and transients. Some taxonomists (scientists who study the relationships within and between species) believe that some differences between forms of killer whales may be great enough to further sub-divide the species.

  2. How are transient killer whales and resident killer whales different?
    As the terms transient and resident imply, the two forms of killer whales have different behavior and movement patterns, but both forms can be found seasonally in Puget Sound. Transient killer whales travel in smaller groups (called . pods . ) and hunt other marine mammals for food. Resident killer whales spend more time in the Sound, travel in larger pods and eat mostly fish.

  3. What is a southern resident killer whale and are there resident killer whales in other places?
    Southern resident killer whales are fish-eating killer whales with a seasonal (summer) home range that includes Washington and southern British Columbia waters (Puget Sound, the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the southern Strait of Georgia). Along the north Pacific coast, resident killer whales occur from Oregon and Washington to the Bering Sea. In the Pacific Northwest, the two closest resident killer whale communities (groups of pods that share a common home range), are the southern residents . the ones petitioned for protection . and the northern residents, which live in northern British Columbia and southeast Alaska.

  4. Where do the southern resident killer whales go when they . re not in Puget Sound?
    Most of the information we have about southern resident killer whales has been collected in Puget Sound during the summer months. Very little is known about their movements or feeding areas during the winter. In 1999, for the first time, scientists observed resident whales from Puget Sound as far south as Monterey, California.

  5. How many southern resident killer whales are there?
    As far as we know, the number of southern resident killer whales has never been large, perhaps numbering between 100 and 200 before 1960. Live captures of whales from the southern resident community, for the public display industry, reduced the number to fewer than 70 in 1973, when an annual killer whale census of the population began. The 2001 census counted 78 southern residents. This is lower than the 2000 census and a continuation of a downward trend that began in 1996 when 97 whales were counted. There is no comprehensive world-wide estimate of the total number of killer whales.

Questions about the petition and the process

  1. What is the Petition to List Southern Resident Killer as Endangered under the Endangered Species Act ?
    The petition is essentially a request for the government to conduct the necessary studies and reviews to determine whether southern resident killer whales can be considered a . species, . as defined in the ESA, and whether human-caused threats to the population warrant the additional protection of listing them as threatened or endangered. Although killer whales everywhere are part of the same species, the ESA allows for a species to be broken down into . distinct population segments . (DPS) when considering listing. Up until now, the distinct population segment criteria have never been applied to killer whales.

  2. What will happen now that the petition has been accepted?
    The National Marine Fisheries Service will publish a notice in the Federal Register announcing acceptance of the petition on or about Aug. 8, and requesting information from the public. Acceptance of the petition means that NMFS believes there is substantial information presented in the petition to warrant a listing. Acceptance does not mean that listing is automatic, or that NMFS has accepted the arguments presented in the petition as appropriate in the context of the ESA. Next, NMFS will name a biological review team (BRT) to compile and review all of the available information, including comments and data received from the public.

  3. Who is on the biological review team and what will it do?
    The BRT is composed of agency scientists from a variety of disciplines who will try to answer a number of key questions including: 1) What constitutes a DPS of killer whales? 2) Are southern resident killer whales a DPS themselves or part of a larger DPS? 3) If the southern resident DPS is declining, is it threatened or endangered, according to the definitions of the ESA? 4) If it is threatened or endangered, what attributes of its habitat are critical to its continued survival? 5) What factors are contributing to the decline? 6) If factors contributing to the decline can be identified, are there regulatory mechanisms in place to address those factors and mitigate or reverse their adverse effects?

  4. Will there be any chance for non-agency experts to review and comment on the findings of the BRT?

    Yes. In the Federal Register notice, NMFS solicited recommendations for independent peer reviewers who will review the findings of the BRT in the event the agency later proposes to list these killer whales.

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