Federal agency to study Orca decline, decide on protection

Orca whales, the signature wildlife of Puget Sound, are a step closer to federal protection that could prevent their extinction.

The National Marine Fisheries Service announced yesterday it will review the status of the Northwest orca, also known as the southern residents, whose population has crashed in recent years.

The review may result in a listing of the whales for protection under the federal Endangered Species Act, but that is in no way a foregone conclusion. The study will examine the reasons behind the decline in the number of orcas, which has plunged from 97 whales in 1996 to an estimated 78. There might have been as many as 200 before 1960.

The sleek, black-and-white whales swim Puget Sound and the Strait of Juan de Fuca and British Columbia's Strait of Georgia in the summertime.

The review is in response to a petition by a coalition of conservation groups earlier this year. The agency must decide whether to list the animals for protection by mid-2003.

Several key questions must be answered in the study, including whether the whales form a distinct population and whether their decline is a direct result of human influences.

It's too soon to say whether a listing could result in new restrictions on whale watching, boat traffic or pollution. Among other questions, agency policy-makers would need to determine if existing laws are enough to protect the whales if they indeed decide to list them.

The agency convened a killer-whale workshop in Seattle in early 2000 of experts from Canada and the United States. Those experts confirmed the drop in population but could not pinpoint a cause.

Whale watching, lack of food due to the decline in salmon populations, and pollution were identified as possible factors. The animals remain a mystery in many ways; scientists don't know where they spend the winter, or how widely they range.

If the agency decides to propose the whales for listing, it would have another year to complete more study and hold public hearings before making a final decision by May 2003.

The Center for Biological Diversity, one of the petitioners requesting the ESA listing, has developed population studies that indicate the whales could be extinct within 33 to 121 years if trends in decreased food supply, disease outbreaks and oil spills are not reversed.

The same population model shows the whales have a good chance of avoiding extinction if those environmental risks are eliminated.

Advocates for the whale were delighted the review is under way.

"The population has been declining for six years," said Joe Olson of the Puget Sound chapter of the American Cetacean Society in Seattle.

"The sooner this comes to the attention of the federal government the better. Even if they are not listed, this will bring a lot of attention to the health of the whole Puget Sound ecosystem."