Following a legal battle about whether or not to remove a group of orca whales from the endangered species list, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has announced they will be keeping their protection.
The orcas at the center of this fight, known as the southern resident killer whales, include three distinct pods (J, K and L pods) who live in Puget Sound, the Strait of Georgia and the Strait of Juan de Fuca during the summer months and migrate to the open ocean in the winter. Their route includes traveling through the San Francisco Bay area where they feed on Chinook salmon.
NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service listed the southern residents as endangered species in 2005 in response to a petition filed by conservation organizations that argued their population was distinct and warranted protection. As of now, there are only 82 of these orcas in the wild.
Last summer the Pacific Legal Foundation filed a petition with the NMFS to remove the southern residents from the endangered species list, arguing they had been illegally listed as a Distinct Population Segment and that they aren’t genetically distinct.
The real issues underlying the petitioners arguments is that protecting these orcas means protecting their habitat and the Chinook salmon they rely on, which has led to cutbacks in irrigation from the Sacramento River where salmon live that they believe has caused problems for farmers.
The NMFS’s announcement rejecting the Pacific Legal Foundation’s petition confirms that these orcas are unique and genetically different enough to warrant protection, in addition to confirming they are still facing threats to their survival, including pollution, boat traffic and noise and habitat destruction.
“We have decided these killer whales are a distinct population group,” NOAA spokesman Brian Gorman told the AP. “They have their own language, own food source. They don’t interbreed with other groups of killer whales. They meet the legal standard for a distinct population group.”
In other good news for the southern residents, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife also just got a grant for more than $900,000 from NOAA to help them by conducting public outreach and education, hiring enforcement officers to monitor vessels to ensure they aren’t harassed or harmed and to evaluate regulations in place to protect them.
NOAA’s decision could also play a role that will impact Lolita, the lone orca who is currently at the Miami Seaquarium. She is a member of the L pod who was taken from the wild decades ago and currently has advocates fighting to have endangered species protection as a southern resident extended to her.
If she is added to the listing, it could fuel the fight to have her freed and returned to her family in the wild, or at least to a sea pen where she will be able to communicate with them. The NMFS has until January to decide whether the petition to add her to the listing is warranted.
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