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Puget Sound orcas face challenges from boat noise & a de-listing petition from farmers

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As the US Federal government takes up a petition calling for the removal of Puget Sound’s resident orcas from the Endangered Species list, a lack of funding at NOAA continues to hamper efforts to enforce regulations meant to protect them from harassment by whale watching boats.  Seattle’s Q13 TV news team tells the sorry tale here, in both a text and 7-minute video version. Meanwhile, the area’s shipping din may increase yet again, as an EIS Scoping Period has begun as the Army Corps of Engineers begins planning for what could be the nation’s largest export facility, the Gateway Terminal, proposed for shipping coal to Asia. 

OrcaNOAA Fisheries announced on Monday that it would review the status of the southern resident population of killer whales, in response to a delisting petition from California farmers.  In addition to  boat noise, a decrease in salmon runs is a key driver of reduced orca populations, and protection plans for the orcas include protections for salmon, including maintaining river flows.  The farmers claim this is denying them the water they need.  The heart of the petition is a challenge to NOAA’s determination that this local population is genetically distinct and deserving protection, although the species as a whole is not threatened.

The Seattle Times has a good detailed article on the challenge, including this reaction from Fred Fellerman, who has championed the ESA listing from the beginning:

“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 saidTo hi.  m, 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.”

The question of whether the southern resident killer whales are a genetically distinct population ran through the early years of the listing question, with NOAA initially determining they were not, a court ruling that the question should be studied more thoroughly, and a science task force finding they are distinct enough to warrant protection.  One of two populations in the area (the other ranges over a wider area, and passes through seasonally), the southern resident population is under a hundred individuals.

An article in The Province, a BC newspaper, fleshes out the controversy a bit more:

“Don’t forget that the whale’s listing is based on the government’s seat-of-the-pants determination in 2005 that there suddenly existed an unnamed and theretofore unknown subspecies of killer whale in the North Pacific,” says the Pacific Legal Foundation’s Liberty Blog. “Our delisting petition is not anti-whale, but it certainly is pro-farmer and pro-freedom.”

“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,” says a NOAA release.

The petition exasperates Howard Garrett of Orca Network, a Washington state-based non-profit advocacy group for Pacific Northwest whales, but he believes the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is simply doing due diligence.

“I think NOAA is duty-bound to review it, but I don’t think they are going to do anything about it,” he said. “[The Pacific Legal Foundation] is dressing it up as science … but it’s way out of the consensus of geneticists.”

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