JUST LIKE CLOCKWORK, and just before the deadline tolled, a coalition of seven conservation groups, plus that indefatigable whale hugger Ralph Munro, filed suit last Wednesday to force the federal government to recognize Washington’s resident killer whales as a distinct, endangered population under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The lawsuit had been expected since last June, when the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS)—contrary to the implications of its own scientific findings, but in keeping with conventional scientific wisdom and current political trends— refused to recognize southern resident orcas as a “significant” population meriting ESA protection.
The Fisheries Service instead proposed listing them as a “depleted” population under the narrower protection of the Marine Mammal Protection Act. NMFS spokesperson Brian Gorman insists the difference is one of “process, not goal. . . . We care very much about protecting this population.” Gorman notes that the marine mammal act has the same “anti- harassment provisions” as the ESA. But that’s hardly the only or worst threat. Endangered-species status would require that governments and businesses protect not just individual whales but their habitat—a powerful and potentially expensive lever to force Puget Sound cleanup, if long-lived, toxin-accumulating orcas can be shown to need cleaner waters than the salmon species that are already protected.
So why don’t the southern orcas qualify? Gorman vehemently denies any political pressure: “I can state categorically that doesn’t happen. This is a result of recommendations of our own scientific panel.” And no one denies that the local killer whales are imperiled: Despite long natural life spans, their numbers have fallen by nearly a fifth since 1996, while infant mortality and PCB contamination have soared. The question is how “distinct” they are.
Official taxonomy classifies all killer whales around the globe as a single species, Orcinus orca. But as Gorman himself notes, that’s “an outmoded view that ought be changed.” Last April, NMFS’s own biological review team spelled out ample reason to consider the resident orcas a distinct population, perhaps even a separate species. Fish-eating resident whales and the transient orcas that range along the coast and eat mammals look different, have different social structures, and don’t noticeably interact.
Even other resident orcas to the north rarely enter local waters and don’t interbreed. Individual “cultures”—the knowledge of local geography, food cycles, climate, etc.—might be as important to orcas as to humans. For all these reasons, NMFS biologists concluded, “the prospect of recolonization . . . may be remote.” In other words, if we let these whales die out, orcas may never swim here again.
The plaintiffs will doubtless throw all these findings back at the feds in court.