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Puget Sound Orcas to Remain Protected

chasedekker photo

  The charismatic black and white killer whales that spend their summers in Puget Sound will remain protected under the Endangered Species Act.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has rejected a call to de-list resident orcas. 

NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service spent a year reviewing a petition to de-list the orcas. It was brought by a group of California farmers who face water restrictions to protect the salmon that resident orcas eat. They argued the Puget Sound killer whales should not qualify for the endangered species status awarded in 2005 because they’re part of a larger North Pacific population that’s healthy and numbers in the thousands.

But NOAA Fisheries spokesman Brian Gorman says the agency concluded the 82 remaining Puget Sound orcas are a distinct population.

“All the scientific evidence points in that direction. They have their own language, their own food source. They don’t interbreed to any significant degree with other killer whales. They are by any stretch of what the law says a distinct population,” Gorman said.  

The farmers, represented by the Sacramento-based Pacific Legal Foundation, argue there’s no genetic proof of that.  That’s one of many arguments they may now use to bring a lawsuit for the de-listing.

Meantime, NOAA has just announced a nearly million-dollar grant for the Washington state Fish and Wildlife Department to hire an orca protection officer. The money will be used to enforce and educate the public about a new rule requiring all recreational boats stay 200 yards away from the whales. 

Bellamy Pailthorp covers the environment beat for KNKX, where she has worked since 1999. From 2000-2012, she covered the business and labor beat. Bellamy has a deep interest in Indigenous affairs and the Salish Sea. She has a masters in journalism from Columbia University.

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