US won't act to protect Seattle-area killer whales
The National Marine Fisheries Service ruled that the 78 black-and-white killer whales, or orcas, were in danger of extinction but not a "distinct population segment" that would warrant stronger protection.
"The current trends suggest that that population is in serious trouble," said NMFS Regional Administrator Bob Lohn, noting the decline from 97 whales in 1996.
But the local group, adored by residents and followed by as many as 100 whale-watching boats on sunny summer days, is not critical to the survival of the species as a whole, which fares much better in Canada and Alaska to the north, NMFS decided.
The decision, announced at a news conference in Seattle, drew angry responses from conservation groups, including the Center for Biological Diversity, which filed an administrative petition in May 2001 that prompted the NMFS orca review.
"By definition this population is on the brink of extinction. If we don't act now it could be gone and NMFS is saying 'We're not going to do anything'," said Brent Plater, an attorney with the Center's San Francisco office.
An "endangered" label would have given local officials more legal tools for halting industrial pollution and other measures for protecting orca habitat, Plater said.
Experts know very little about the orcas, which can weigh several tons and live for 80 years. The local or "resident" populations eat only fish, primarily salmon. Transient whales, which wander more, also eat mammals like seals and sea lions.
A general decline in salmon may have hurt the orca population, though fish stocks have improved in recent years.
Several dead whales have been found to have high levels of chemical pollutants in their blubber, including the pesticide DDT and the industrial chemicals PCBs, both banned in the United States since the 1970s.
Lohn said noisy boat traffic, including whale watchers, may stress the whales, as may intestinal parasites. But researchers have no hard data to pinpoint the problem.
In fact no one even knows where the giant mammals go when they leave the area each fall, returning in the spring.
"We're determined that this (population) trend does not go further down," Lohn said, calling the decline an "enormous scientific puzzle."