Environmentalists seek ESA protection for local orcas

Published July 1, 2001

Anti-logging and anti-commercial fishing advocacy groups on May 1 petitioned the federal government to grant endangered species status to a group of Pacific Northwest orcas known as the “southern residents.”

The southern residents, one of three orca populations found along the North American Pacific coast, live in waters between Washington state and British Columbia, Canada. Other orcas, known as “northern residents,” live farther north along the coast, while still other orcas, known as “transients,” range between Alaska and Mexico.

The petitioners seek protection for the southern residents, biologically identical to the other groups of orcas, based on the fact that the population of this subgroup has recently dropped from 98 to 82 members.

The petitioners claim that pollution, habitat loss, and overfishing of the orcas’ favorite prey—Northwest salmon—are the main culprits behind the decrease in southern residents. Some further claim the only way to protect the southern residents is to protect Northwest salmon. Protecting these salmon, in turn, requires protecting the salmons’ favorite food: herring. Protecting herring requires protecting eel grass and other vegetation upon which the herring feed.

“Clearly, the objective of these lobbying groups is less to save the whales than to shut down commercial activity along the Washington coast,” warns Joseph Bast, president of The Heartland Institute.

But the orcas’ food chain “is being decimated from top to bottom,” claimed Kieran Suckling of the Center for Biological Diversity, lead author of the orca petition. “Eel grass in Puget Sound has declined by 33 percent because of development. . . . Herring numbers are way down due to commercial fishing and habitat loss.”

The petitioners also claim the Northwest salmon population is threatened by logging, dams, commercial fishing, and water pollution. Saving the southern residents “will require nothing short of restoring the entire ecosystem” of Puget Sound and the Seattle coastal region.

Others disagree. Shane Aggergaard, owner of Island Adventure Whale Watching, notes the southern resident orca population experienced a similar decline in the mid-1980s. He speculates that gains and declines in southern resident population were part of a natural cycle driven by natural conditions, a possibility that renders the environmentalists’ petition moot.

The National Marine Fisheries Service has 90 days to issue an initial finding, and then another year to recommend whether the southern residents should be declared threatened or endangered under federal law. If the southern residents are listed as endangered, the Endangered Species Act requires the development of a plan to protect the orcas’ habitat.

“We need politicians to take some risks,” stated Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research, “like removing dams that obstruct salmon and ending logging in the watershed areas.” But conceding to the demands of activists such as Balcomb may pose bigger risks to the citizens of Washington State.

Ending logging and, especially, removing dams would be very controversial in an energy- and water-starved region already experiencing severe drought and painful energy shortages. Critics wonder whether such drastic steps are appropriate considering that the local group of orcas is part of a plentiful worldwide population and may not require the desired protections.