When the resident orcas in the Puget Sound were listed as an endangered species back in 2005, it seemed inevitable that business interests -- who hate being restricted in their ability to ruin the environment at whim, including destroying the salmon runs on which the orcas' survival depends -- would try to overturn the ruling. And sure enough, within the year, the Building Industry Association of Washington filed a suit to try to delist them. It was thrown out in a matter of months.
Now comes yet another attempt, courtesy of a right-wing legal foundation filing another delisting attempt on behalf of a handful of California farmers, unhappy that they've lost irrigation water to salmon restoration:
NOAA Fisheries will begin a review of the status of a population of killer whales that is currently listed under the Endangered Species Act. This review is prompted by a petition from the California-based Pacific Legal Foundation to remove existing protection for these whales.
NOAA said the petition presents new information from scientific journal articles about killer whale genetics, addressing issues such as how closely related this small population is to other populations, and meets the agency's standard for accepting a petition to review.
During the status review, the agency will seek public input and gather all relevant information to determine if NOAA should propose to remove this distinct population of killer whales from the federal species-protection list. The agency cautioned that acceptance of this petition does not suggest that a proposal to delist will follow.
These fish-eating marine mammals, sometimes called orcas and officially known as Southern Resident killer whales, were listed as endangered in 2005, when there were 89 of them in the population.
Southern Resident killer whales spend time in Washington's Puget Sound and nearby waters. They generally leave for the open ocean in the winter. Scientists say that there are now 86 killer whales in the population. The petition asserts that the Southern Resident killer whales are actually part of a much larger population and are, therefore, not in danger of extinction.
NOAA insists that accepting the petition does not mean it is necessarily inclined to delist:
We'll begin a review to determine the population's ESA status, and are soliciting scientific and commercial information about these whales to ensure that the status review is comprehensive. Acceptance of this petition doesn't presuppose any particular outcome. We'll consider and address all substantive information received by Jan. 28, 2013.
What's especially specious are the arugments being raised by the Pacific Legal Foundation:
The decision comes after the Pacific Legal Foundation filed a petition in August asserting that the whale, which swims in the marine waters of the Pacific Northwest, is not biologically different from other orcas found in oceans all over the world.
The PLF argues the whale's continued listing puts farmers at risk because salmon and steelhead found in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta are part of the orca's food supply.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said in a news release that the PLF's petition presents new information from scientific journal articles about killer whale genetics. The articles address issues such as how closely related this small population is to other groups of orcas, meeting the agency's standard for accepting a petition for review.
In reality, the newest orca research actually establishes the unique qualities of resident populations. Because they are social animals, they live in fairly large groups which move about to various locales, depending on where fish runs are most abundant. At the same time, genetically distinct populations of so-called "transient" orcas, or Bigg's killer whales -- which eat marine mammals as opposed to fish -- also move through these same waters.
Orcas are not like other species in their portability: If these resident orcas become extinct, they will not be replaced in the ecosystem by other orcas. They will simply be gone.
This would be not just a devastating outcome for people who care about the health of our waters here on Puget Sound. It would also have a devastating economic effect: It's estimated that over a million travelers come to Washington state each year with the purpose of seeing our killer whales, who are indeed among the world's most easily observed whale populations.
A number of observers are questioning NOAA's motives as well:
Fred Felleman, of Seattle, who in 2001 advocated for the original petition for listing, said the petition now to delist the orcas is a distraction from the necessary work of rebuilding orca populations.
"Oh great, here is a chance to biopsy them and tag them and chase them all over town until we don't have to worry about them any more," Felleman said.
To him, the distinct behavior of the southern residents sets them clearly apart from other orcas. They eat only fish, while other orcas eat seals and other mammals. They have distinct family groups, dialects, greeting ceremonies and migratory patterns.
"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."
If you want to make your voice heard on this issue, there are two organizations to whom you should write:
Protected Resources Division
7600 Sand Point Way NE
Seattle, WA 98115-0070
Attention—Donna Darm, Assistant Regional Adminstrator
And then you can write our friends at the Pacific Legal Foundation, which has a history of advocating for tobacco and nuclear interests and other "business" causes inimical to the human population. Now they're moving to hurt wildlife too -- which also hurts humans.
Pacific Legal Foundation
3900 Lennane Drive, Suite 200
Sacramento, CA 95834
Phone: (916) 419 7111
Fax: (916) 419 7747
Email: plf AT pacificlegal.org
Notably, PLF has offices in Washington state, where the businesses who would be harmed by orca extinction operate:
10940 NE 33rd Pl # 210
Be polite and respectful -- but let them know what you think.