The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) will be reviewing a petition from the California-based Pacific Legal Foundation seeking to remove a group of orca whales from the endangered species list.
The petition, which was filed on behalf of two California farms — the Empresa de Bosque and Coburn Ranch — and the Center for Environmental Science Accuracy, argues that this group of whales does not need to be protected because they’re part of a larger population. The groups contend that because the population is technically a subspecies, it is illegal for them to be listed.
The real problem the petitioners have is that protecting these whales means protecting their habitat and the fish they eat, which has led to cutbacks in irrigation, which they claim has caused problems getting loans and an inability to expand their businesses.
The orcas in question, known as the southern resident killer whales, include three distinct pods who live in Puget Sound, the Strait of Georgia and the Strait of Juan de Fuca during the summer months and migrate to the open ocean in the winter. Their route includes traveling through the San Francisco Bay area where they feed on Chinook salmon.
NOAA initially decided that the southern resident whales in the J, K and L pods were not a distinct population, but their findings were overruled by a U.S. District Court judge in 2003 and further study led to the conclusion that they are a distinct population. They were subsequently listed in 2005, reports the Seattle Times.
As a result of the findings, a recovery plan was developed and they were given 2,560 square miles of Puget Sound as critical habitat. As of now, there are only an estimated 86 living in the wild, down from 89 in 2006.
“Nothing has changed in the science to show that orcas are faring any better or are somehow suddenly undeserving of endangered species protections. Although the agency’s decision to consider the delisting petition is unfortunate, the species’ status is unlikely to change as a result of the agency’s review, and these irreplaceable killer whales will almost certainly keep their protections,” said Sarah Uhlemann, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity.
Further study conducted by NOAA in 2009 found that water projects in California threatened endangered species and the salmon that the orcas rely on which led to more water restrictions the groups are complaining about.
“If there was ever a poster child for this type of subspecies, it’s the killer whales,” he said. “It’s not just their genetics, it’s culture. These clearly are the tribes of the sea, and if you extirpate that population not only do you lose the genetic code, you lose a unique brain trust,” Fred Felleman, an advocate for the original listing, told the Seattle Times.
According to NOAA, accepting the petition doesn’t necessarily mean that they will propose delisting. The agency will be reviewing information and has a year to make a decision.
Please sign the petition asking NOAA to protect Puget Sound’s orcas.