Byline: Associated Press/Doug Esser
SEATTLE (AP) — Orcas or “killer whales” that spend their summers in Puget Sound are a distinct population group and will remain protected under the Endangered Species Act, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced Aug. 2.
NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service spent a year reviewing a petition to delist the orcas. The petition was brought by the Sacramento-based Pacific Legal Foundation on behalf of California farmers who faced water restrictions to protect salmon the orcas eat. They argued the Puget Sound orcas were part of a larger North Pacific population and didn’t qualify for the 2005 endangered species listing.
But NOAA spokesman Brian Gorman said those arguments were rejected.
“We have decided these killer whales are a distinct population group,” Gorman said. “They have their own language (and their) own food source. They don’t interbreed with other groups of killer whales.”
He added that officials are continuing to work on recovery plan options. Despite their popularity with whale watchers and symbolic value to the region, the orcas are “not in the best of shape,” Gorman said. Their numbers peaked at close to 100 in the 1990s.
There are now 82 orcas in three pods — J, K and L — which also spend much of the year in the Pacific.
They are known as southern resident orcas. Puget Sound also is visited by so-called transient killer whales that hunt harbor seals.
“It’s great news that Puget Sound’s orcas will continue to be protected,” said Miyoko Sakashita, oceans director for the Center for Biological Diversity in San Francisco. “It was troubling to even think that the killer whales might have their protections stripped.”