The federal government is reviewing whether Puget Sound orcas should keep their endangered status.
NOAA Fisheries said Monday the review was prompted by a petition from the California-based Pacific Legal Foundation (PLF) seeking to delist the killer whales from the Endangered Species Act. The petition asserts that orcas aren't in danger of becoming extinct because they're part of a larger population of thriving whales.
NOAA listed southern resident killer whales as endangered in 2005. The orcas frequent Washington's Puget Sound. They also spend time in the open ocean. There are currently 86 of these whales.
The agency has a year to decide whether it should delist the orcas. It says accepting the petition does not suggest a proposal to delist will follow.
The petition was filed in August on behalf of the Center for Environmental Science, Accuracy, and Reliability, as well as two California Central Valley farmers.
PLF says that the farmers' water supply is threatened by the orca’s ESA listing.
According to PLF, "new genetic information indicates that the Southern Resident killer whales are not genetically distinct, in a meaningful way, from killer whales throughout the world."
PLF Principal Attorney Damien Schiff issued the following statement on Monday:
“The federal government's announcement today is good news for everyone who believes that environmental policy should be based on honesty and sound science,” said PLF Principal Attorney Damien M. Schiff. “When a species as a whole isn't endangered, government can't pretend otherwise by narrowly focusing on one arbitrarily chosen region. The feds can’t regulate by zip code. They have to look at the entire population of the species.
“In order to label the orca as endangered, regulators had to invent a new sub-category of orca in the Pacific Northwest,” Schiff continued. “There is no scientifically significant difference between the orcas in that region and anywhere else. There is no taxonomically significant distinction in genetics, biology, or behavior. Our petition points out these facts. It’s encouraging – it’s a step forward for sound science and rational regulations – that federal officials are saying that our petition makes a strong case and the orca listing must be reconsidered.
“The orca listing isn’t just bad science, it’s also bad for the economy,” Schiff said. “Among those hurt by unjustified federal orca regulations are farmers and communities as far away as California's San Joaquin Valley, and even the population of Southern California. One of the reasons for federal limits on the pumping of water to these regions from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, has been to regulate for fish that are part of the orca’s food supply.
“We simply can’t permit unjustified ESA listings to cause economic dislocation for families, farms, businesses, and communities.”
PLF describes itself as "the leading legal watchdog organization that litigates for limited government, property rights, and a balanced approach to environmental regulations, in courts across the country." The organization won the federal court ruling that removed the bald eagle from the federal ESA list.