Puget Sound orca recovery plan looks at multiple threats

By Donna Gordon Blankinship
Seattle, Washington (AP) 2-08

The National Marine Fisheries Service in late January released its recovery plan for Puget Sound’s endangered killer whales, aimed at lessening the threats posed to the orcas by pollution, vessel traffic and decreased availability of food.

The goal is to enable the 88 whales in the “southern resident” population of orcas to be taken off the endangered species list by helping their numbers grow by an average of 2.3 percent per year, reaching about 155 whales in 2029. If the population reaches 113 by 2015, the whales could be listed as threatened, a less severe category under the federal Endangered Species Act.

The federal agency issued its final recovery plan for the whales after taking public comment on a draft plan issued in November 2006. At that time, the fisheries service declared much of Washington’s inland marine waters as critical habitat for the orcas. The area covers about 2,500 square miles, including the waters around the San Juan Islands, the Strait of Juan de Fuca and all of Puget Sound.

Environmentalists said the plan was a move in the right direction, but said more needed to be done.

“The plan as a whole confirms that we’re on the path toward extinction for orcas if we just continue with business as usual. They’ve done an excellent job of recording what the threats are and the status of orcas,” said Heather Trim, who coordinates People for Puget Sound’s orca campaign. “We would have liked to have seen more specific actions.”

Trim said the plan doesn’t give enough details about how many salmon are needed to feed the orcas, doesn’t provide specific benchmarks for reducing toxic pollution and does not address fish hatcheries. She complimented the plan’s detailed approach to oil spills and its request for permanent funding for an oil spill rescue tug at Neah Bay.

Fred Felleman, Northwest consultant for Friends of the Earth, said the final plan fixed one “gross omission” from the draft: It now recognizes the importance of working with tribal governments on orca recovery.

But he said the plan doesn’t address Pacific Coast waters where the whales spend the winter and give birth to most of their calves.

The plan calls for:

–Supporting salmon restoration efforts already under way.

–Cleaning up contaminated sites in Puget Sound and reducing pollution in the region.

–Evaluating and improving guidelines for vessel traffic in and around protected areas, and minimizing underwater sound.

–Preventing oil spills and improving response plans when spills occur.

–Improving public education about how to help save the whales.

–Improving responses to sick or stranded orcas.

–Better coordination between U.S., Canadian and agencies from West Coast states.

–Continuing research to improve conservation efforts.

Research is a major component of the recovery plan and new information from ongoing scientific exploration is one of the most significant differences between this final plan and the draft, said Lynne Barre, a marine mammal specialist with NOAA fisheries and the primary author of both the draft and the final recovery plans.

“It was amazing how much new information there was in just a year,” Barre said. “There is a very active research program under way.”

A bill to restrict whale watching in Washington’s waters was approved by the state House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee. If approved, the measure sponsored by Rep. Dave Quall, D-Mount Vernon, would prohibit whale watching boats from getting within 300 feet of an orca.

The federal government also is studying new restrictions on vessels near orcas, Barre said.

Unique in their diet, language and genetic makeup, southern resident orcas were listed as endangered in late 2005.

Once believed to have numbered 140 or more in the last century, orcas have suffered several periods of major population decline since the 1960s, when the whales were caught for aquariums. The population rebounded to 97 in the 1990s, then declined to 79 in 2001.

Killer whales are actually the world’s largest variety of dolphin and can reach close to 30 feet and weigh more than 15,000 pounds at maturity.