Puget Orcas’ endangered status challenged

Killer whales, also known as orcas, swim off the coast of Alaska. Scientists have debated for years over how many species of killer whale exist. (Photo: handout, Reuters)
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Trish Anderton

The killer whales of Washington’s Puget Sound are not a distinct population of a species, and therefore should be removed from the Endangered Species List, a new petition to the National Marine Fisheries Service argues.

The petition is backed by two California farms “whose access to water for agriculture is threatened” by the whale’s protected status, according to the nonprofit Pacific Legal Foundation, which filed the challenge on their behalf. The Center for Environmental Science, Accuracy and Reliability has also signed onto the petition.

The Puget whales have been a matter of debate since 2001, when the fisheries service determined that they were not a species and should not be listed as endangered. A federal court tossed out that finding in 2003 and ordered the agency to do more research. After a scientific review, the agency decided the whales were a “discrete and significant” population of “an unnamed subspecies of resident killer whales in the North Pacific.” It listed the population as endangered in 2005.

The challengers argue there’s not enough biological evidence to call North Pacific resident killer whales a subspecies. Even if they are a subspecies, they add, the Endangered Species Act only protects distinct populations of species – not subspecies.

The agency is accepting public comments on those arguments through January 28.

Five comments have been posted so far, all of which support continued protection for the whales. “They are a distinct population, different from other orcas,” writes Marilyn Evenson. “Please do not remove their endangered status until a total comprehensive review is conducted with much input of scientific, commercial, & public information.”

The fisheries service’s parent agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, shares responsibility with the Fish and Wildlife Service for administering the 1973 Endangered Species Act. The fisheries service is set to rule on the petition by August 2, 2013. To weigh in, go to regulations.gov before midnight on January 28.