Federal orca recovery plan short on specific proposals

Tacoma News Tribune – Friday, January 25, 2008

SUSAN GORDON; susan.gordon@thenewstribune.com
Last updated: January 25th, 2008 06:54 AM (PST)

Federal officials released their road map Thursday for the revival of Puget Sound’s beloved and beleaguered population of killer whales, also known as orcas.
“My hope is the plan is a useful tool and resource for environmental groups and other government agencies to see what they can do to contribute to the recovery,” said Lynne Barre, a marine mammal specialist.

Barre, who works for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s fisheries division, also known as the National Marine Fisheries Service, is lead author of the 251-page report. The so-called recovery plan is an Endangered Species Act requirement.

The Sound’s orca population numbers 88. Federal officials listed the group as endangered in November 2005.

Thursday’s report reiterates what has become the consensus opinion of marine mammal experts. That is that the Sound’s killer whales suffer from a multitude of insults, many of which are manmade. Among them: lack of food – the orcas’ favorite prey, chinook salmon, also has earned Endangered Species Act protection; toxic pollution; vessel traffic; and underwater noise.

The report stops short of ranking the problems. And while it also lists solutions, it doesn’t prioritize them. Agency officials noted that “there is considerable uncertainty regarding which threats were responsible for the decline in the population or which may be the most important to address.”

Whale conservation advocates gave the report mixed reviews, praising its analysis of current threats to orca survival, but criticizing its lack of specificity.

“What NOAA has done is compiled a list of what’s being done more than create a proactive document of what needs to be done,” said Fred Felleman, a Seattle activist and orca expert.

Heather Trim, who coordinates People for Puget Sound’s orca campaign, appreciated the report’s scientific documentation, but said, “We’re disappointed that the plan does not include more specific actions.”

On the plus side, Trim commended the report for citing the need to permanently fund a year-round rescue tug at Neah Bay.

“One oil spill could wipe out one or two or all three pods,” she said, referring to the orca family groupings known as the J, K and L pods. “This is really the catastrophic crisis we’re trying to avoid.”

Federal officials predict it could cost nearly $50 million and take 28 years to increase the orca population to a self-sustaining level.

In releasing the report, agency officials emphasized the importance of cooperation between the U.S. and Canada, where orca numbers also are dwindling.

While the recovery plan isn’t a regulatory document, some protective measures might be in the works.

In Olympia, state lawmakers are considering bills to restrict whale-watching vessels and to fine violators.

For years, conservationists have recommended that whale watchers keep their boats at least 100 yards away from the orcas. In San Juan County last fall, that became law.

On the federal level, NOAA Fisheries officials in March 2007 began a rule-making process that could do the same thing, the agency’s Barre said. Also proposed is establishment of protected areas where vessels wouldn’t be allowed, she said.

Also under way is development of an orca-specific, Puget Sound oil spill response protocol, Barre said. Federal officials are trying to formulate a plan to protect the whales if a spill occurs.

Already, NOAA has spent nearly $5 million for orca-related research. Over the next five years, the report anticipates another $15 million in spending.

But beyond ongoing scientific research and possible vessel regulations, some whale advocates, such as Felleman, don’t expect federal officials to do much more to protect whales.

Instead, Felleman hopes state officials will act.

“One of the best things whales have got going for them is this commitment from the governor and the Legislature to protect Puget Sound,” he said. “Much is going to bank on how successful the Puget Sound Partnership is.”

Last year, at Gov. Chris Gregoire’s request, lawmakers created the partnership to map out plans to restore the health of the Sound by 2020.

Conservationists first petitioned for federal protection for what scientists call southern resident killer whales in 2001, when the orca census dipped to 79, a 20 percent decline from 1996, officials said.

The black-and-white whales, actually the largest members of the dolphin family, are found worldwide. But the Sound’s resident orcas also are regional icons, particularly around the San Juan Islands, where they’re a tourist attraction.

The resident orcas are identifiable by the unique saddle markings on the back of each whale’s dorsal fin.

Susan Gordon: 253-597-8756

10 steps for orcas

A newly released federal orca recovery plan calls for the following actions, among others. Officials haven’t ranked the items, so the list isn’t ordered by importance.

• Boost shrinking populations of chinook salmon and other orca prey.

• Minimize orca exposure to pollutants and chemical contamination.

• Cut down on vessel-related disturbances.

• Prevent oil spills; plan to protect killer whales from spills if they occur.

• Increase public awareness of threats to orca survival.

• Step up boater education and information campaigns.

• Promote land-based whale watching.

• Respond to stranded orcas, whether dead or alive.

• Coordinate research, monitoring and recovery planning with Canada and other governmental authorities.

• Continue orca census, life history research and scientific evaluation of ongoing threats to orca survival.

Read the federal report, Puget Sound Killer Whale ESA Recovery Plan

Originally published: January 25th, 2008 01:23 AM (PST)

~ by fredfelleman on January 25, 2008.

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