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Puget Sound Orcas Declared Endangered

The designation provides the highest level of protection under federal law.

November 16, 2005|Sam Howe Verhovek | Times Staff Writer

SEATTLE — Puget Sound's orcas, the iconic black-and-white whales famed for their arching leaps alongside ferries and other marine traffic, were declared an endangered species by the federal government Tuesday.

The designation, long sought by environmental groups, will provide "a better chance for keeping this population alive for future generations," said Bob Lohn, regional administrator for the National Marine Fisheries Service.

The decision will provide the whales with the highest level of protection afforded under the federal Endangered Species Act and is stronger than the category of threatened species the agency had proposed in December.

Scientists say at least 89 whales in three groups, called pods, live much of the year in Washington state's Puget Sound and the waters off British Columbia. That is many fewer than are believed to have lived in past decades, although official orca counts have been maintained for only about 30 years.

But it is an improvement over the official low of 79 orcas in 2002 and the numbers from the late 1960s and early 1970s, when dozens were captured legally for viewing in aquariums.

The Marine Mammal Protection Act, which shields the whales from hunting and harassment, stopped that practice. But Lohn said the orcas, known officially as southern resident killer whales, were still at risk of extinction and deserved the highest level of protection.

In recent years, about two dozen varieties of salmon and steelhead trout have been listed as either endangered or threatened. Along with those designations, the ruling could conceivably lead to restrictions on construction projects along the sound and to rules limiting the use of fertilizer or pesticides.

Some environmental groups contend the whales are harmed by naval sonar exercises and the effects of whale-watching tours, such as noise.

The groups have sought limits on both, including new rules that could require the tourist boats to keep a greater distance from whales that are spotted leaping out of the water.

"We are encouraged that scientists understand the damage that has been done to this specific orca population, but much more work needs to be done to save these animals," said Mark Anderson, founder of Orca Relief Citizens' Alliance, an environmental group.

Kathy Fletcher, executive director of People for Puget Sound, a regional environmental group, said the listing was significant for many kinds of marine life harmed by pollution.

"By listing the orcas as endangered," Fletcher said, "they are pretty much listing Puget Sound as endangered."

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