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Oceans: Feds to consider de-listing Puget Sound orcas

The National Marine Fisheries Service will consider a petition to de-list Puget Sound orcas. Photo courtesy NOAA.

Right-wing property rights group files nuisance petition

By Bob Berwyn

SUMMIT COUNTY — An anti-environmental property rights groups has successfully petitioned the National Marine Fisheries Service to reconsider its Endangered Species Act listing for Puget Sound’s resident orcas, more formally known as southern resident killer whales.

Puget Sound orcas have had endangered status since 2005, when federal biologists listed them due to threats from pollution, habitat destruction and over-collection by the marine aquarium industry. Puget Sound orcas are one of a few populations to feed extensively on salmon; they have a unique dialect; and previous studies have shown they are genetically unique.

According to NOAA, the petition presents enough new information and scientific literature to revisit the listing decision, 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.

“It would be a tragedy to strip Washington’s most iconic species of protections. Only around 85 southern resident killer whales are left, and their Endangered Species Act listing is critical to the population’s recovery in Puget Sound,” said Sarah Uhlemann, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity.

Noah Greenwald, endangered species program director for the Center for Biological Diversity, said it doesn’t take much for federal biologists to at least start the process of revisiting a listing decision. But Greenwald is confident the listing will stand based on the existing science.

The Pacific Legal Foundation, which bills itself as a property rights group, has been trying to remove protections for a number of species that are endangered in the United States but also occur in other countries, including marbled murrelets, woodland caribou and now the southern resident orcas. Similar arguments made by the group were rejected by a federal court in 2006.

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.

Uhlemann said the population has been more or less holding steady since then, and that the same threats that spurred the listing still remain.

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 Fisheries has a year from receiving the petition to make a decision on whether delisting is warranted. Any formal proposal to delist would be followed by a public comment and public hearings before a final decision about official listing could be made.

The Pacific Legal Foundation filed its petition in August 2012, on behalf of the Center for Environmental Science Accuracy and Reliability and two California farms, Empresas Del Bosque and Coburn Ranch.

“Nothing has changed in the science to show that orcas are faring any better or are somehow suddenly undeserving of endangered species protections.,” Uhlemann said. Although the agency’s decision to consider the delisting petition is unfortunate, the species’ status is unlikely to change as a result of the agency’s review, and these irreplaceable killer whale will almost certainly keep their protections,” said Uhlemann.

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