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Monday, April 05, 2004 - Page updated at 12:12 A.M.
State lists Puget Sound orca as in danger
By Sharon Pian Chan
The commission voted unanimously Saturday to approve the listing, while the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) weighs whether to grant the orcas federal endangered status. Covering the killer whales under the federal Endangered Species Act would likely mean significant policy changes ranging from waterfront construction to cruise-ship operations.
"It's critical that the federal government looks into this and that they don't just blow it off," said Russ Cahill, a Fish and Wildlife commissioner. "This is the major flag that waves over the Puget Sound as far as I'm concerned."
Two years ago, the NMFS decided not to list the whales as endangered. But in December, U.S. District Judge Robert Lasnik ruled that the agency had ignored available science when it made that call, and observers remain hopeful that NMFS will add Puget Sound orcas to the endangered list this year.
The state decision was made after the commission discovered the local orca population has declined 18 percent since 1995, according to a department report. Several possible factors were cited, including declining salmon populations, increased pollution and harassment by marine vehicles.
Three social groups make up the region's resident orca population: the J, K and L pods. Cahill said he was particularly concerned with the L pod, which has only one breeding male.
Coincidentally, the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans is expected to announce plans today to reunite Luna, a 4-year-old orca, with the L pod. Luna has been stranded for two years off Vancouver Island. The Canadian government has already declared the region's killer whales endangered.
While the Washington state listing doesn't carry the weight of a federal endangered-species listing, the state can assist with recovery efforts indirectly.
"This may be a step toward some significant changes," said David Bain, an affiliate assistant professor of psychology at the University of Washington who has been researching local whales for 25 years. "One of the reasons killer whales have been troubled is that food supply has been depleted. The state has a major role to play in salmon."
For instance, the state could close certain areas to sport fishing, or make it more difficult to get development permits in sensitive areas, Bain said. Tightening state regulations to prevent oil spills would also protect the orcas, he said. At a minimum, the state could provide more research funding.
But "listing under the federal Endangered Species Act would be much more significant," Bain said. "The fact that Washington state and Canadian government has already listed increases the chances that will happen."
Sharon Pian Chan: 206-464-2958 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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