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U.S. Offers Orca Rescue Plan

by Robert McClure
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, November 29, 2006

But environmental groups say it's vague, lacks concrete action

Federal fisheries officials Tuesday unveiled their plan to rescue Puget Sound's embattled orcas but said they won't protect some waters environmentalists consider important to the killer whales: the Sound's shoreline, Hood Canal and the Pacific Coast.

In its recovery plan, the National Marine Fisheries Service voiced "considerable uncertainty" about which of many threats to orcas should get the most attention. Are toxic chemicals most important? Reduced runs of the whales' favorite food, Chinook salmon? Effects such as engine noise from whale watchers and other boats?

Property rights advocates dismissed the whole exercise as unnecessary. Environmentalists said that while they're glad to see the government moving to help orcas, federal policymakers aren't going far enough. They advocate more concrete and immediate actions to save the whales.

"On toxics, they seem very reluctant to propose action because they want to study it more," said Kathy Fletcher, president of the environmental group People for Puget Sound. "It would be nice to see a lot more action-oriented commitment."

Rebuilding after orca captures for aquariums were banned in the 1970s, Puget Sound's orca population hit 97 in the 1990s before declining to 90 as of July. Since then, as many as four whales may have died. Another count is scheduled for July.

The orcas were protected by the fisheries service last year under the Endangered Species Act after years of legal action by conservationists. The proposed recovery plan "seems vague," said Patti Goldman of Earthjustice, an environmentalist law firm. "There are some nice aspirations, but it's hard to see what it's going to do."

Among other things, the plan calls for new research, better coordination between state and federal agencies, and cleanup and improved monitoring of contaminated sites in the Sound.

Russell Brooks of the Pacific Legal Foundation, an attorney suing the fisheries service on behalf of building and farming interests in an effort to undo the legal protections, said the Endangered Species Act has been "hijacked" by environmentalists "who really want to use the (law) as a type of land-use statute and in this case a water-use statute."

Brooks said it's hard to know what kinds of restrictions might ultimately be sought.

"All we can do so far is look at some of the activities the fisheries service asserts could affect killer whales, and that's shoreline development (and) certainly anything that affects salmon, and that's the timber industry, the farming industry, the ranching industry," Brooks said.

"You could also see a reduction in various activities taking place on Puget Sound such as commercial shipping, whale watching, cruise-ship activity, recreational boating -- all of those things."

At the same time the fisheries service announced its tentative protection plan for the orcas, it laid out its final decision on protecting the orcas' "critical habitat."

That adds an extra layer of protection in certain areas considered especially important to helping an endangered species rebound.

Environmentalists were pleased when the fisheries service proposed protecting most of Puget Sound with the designation in June, but said it left out some important areas: the Sound's shoreline, where small fish that feed salmon are born; Hood Canal, which orcas used for decades before abandoning it when salmon runs nose-dived in the 1980s and '90s; and Washington's Pacific coast, where the orcas are known to hunt salmon in the winter months. It also leaves out areas adjacent to 18 military sites.

David Bain, an orca researcher, scurried last summer to gather accounts of the orcas using Hood Canal from people who live near the glacially carved fjord.

He found evidence the orcas hunted salmon there regularly at least from the late 1920s until the mid-1980s. After that, their visits became more sporadic until they dropped off entirely in the mid-1990s.

That mirrors the salmon population of the area, he said. And while the orcas' favorite food, chinook, has not yet rebounded, chum salmon are coming back.

If the salmon- and orca-restoration efforts pay dividends, it won't be long before an expanding orca population needs to chase chinook in Hood Canal, Bain argued.

The fisheries service didn't buy it.

The same goes for the shallow areas of Puget Sound, where orcas have been seen chasing salmon occasionally, and the Pacific Coast, where many of them spend the winter.

The agency didn't feel it had enough proof the orcas frequent those areas, said Lynne Barre, a marine mammal specialist working on orca issues for the agency. Federal scientists used the most extensive collection of whale sightings available, from the Whale Museum in Friday Harbor, which dates to 1990.

The Endangered Species Act says to win the extra protection, an area must "contain physical or biological features that are essential" for an animal to rebound.

"We have to be able to identify those features and draw lines on a map," Barre said, adding that it's possible for the agency to change its mind as more research is done. And the plan does emphasize the need for much more research.

"Some of the data gaps are going to be difficult to fill, and it's going to be a long-term process," Barre said.

"I'm glad we have a long-term research program that's gotten some funding in the last few years. There are a lot of questions to be answered."


The plan is available at The public can send comments to or write to Lynne Barre, National Marine Fisheries Service, 7600 Sand Point Way N.E., Seattle, 98115

Robert McClure
U.S. Offers Orca Rescue Plan
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, November 29, 2006

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