Updated: December 14, 2005
Efforts to protect orcas may have wide impact
Tuesday, December 13, 2005
By ROBERT MCCLURE
SEATTLE POST-INTELLIGENCER REPORTER
What do chemicals you wash down the drain, Navy ships, a proposed Maury Island gravel mine and an international treaty have in common?
Each could be affected by the recent protection of Puget Sound killer whales under the Endangered Species Act.
Early next year comes the first step in determining how much punch the "endangered" label will carry for the oft-ogled orcas. Federal officials are asking the public to speak up in the next few weeks.
The National Marine Fisheries Service, which has released a proposed conservation plan, hopes the new listing will lead to better safeguards against oil spills -- the biggest single extinction threat for the orca. The agency is also raising the prospect of tighter controls on development in sensitive areas and restrictions on emerging chemical threats.
But the agency isn't likely to do anything soon about an expanding whale-watching fleet, and what orca advocates call a growing underwater cacophony of boat noise hobbling the whales' ability to find prey and communicate.
Orca advocates want all that dealt with under the new endangered designation, but that's unlikely, according to Fisheries Service spokesman Brian Gorman.
"There was some concern there would be draconian regulations," he said, "but I'm of the opinion that ... there isn't going to be a heck of a lot of difference in how federal agencies do business in the Sound."
Environmentalists, who had to sue the Fisheries Services to force the endangered species listing, say that's exactly what they're afraid of.
"The question is, how seriously do they take this?" said Michael Jasny of the Natural Resources Defense Council. "Are they going to come up with a recovery plan that's merely aspirational?"
The resident orca population plunged by nearly one-fifth during the 1990s, to 80. It has now rebuilt to 90. Government scientists identify the chief threats to orcas as pollution, reduced salmon runs, increasing boat traffic and noise, oil spills and disease.
Fisheries Service officials have no direct authority over oil spill prevention, and they don't regulate toxic chemicals, either -- although emboldened environmentalists are now pushing for a hastened cleanup of pollution hot spots around the Sound.
The Coast Guard should also rethink the way ships are routed to be friendlier to orcas that are increasingly viewed by researchers as sensitive to underwater sound, said Patti Goldman of the Earthjustice law firm.
Environmentalists want stronger curbs on use of high-powered Navy sonar for training in waters frequented by orcas. They cite the agitation suffered by orcas and other marine mammals when a Navy guided-missile destroyer, the USS Shoup, conducted sonar-training exercises near the San Juan Islands in 2003.
The Navy says it already takes precautions, such as checking nearby waters for orcas before using sonar. "For now, we're going to proceed as we always have," said Navy spokeswoman Sheila Murray.
An early test of how much difference an Endangered Species Act designation will make is the controversial effort to expand a Maury Island gravel mine. The noise from barges being loaded and tugs pulling loads of gravel, orca advocates fear, would harm whales from one family group that tend to show up there in winter and early spring. Often, they have calves in tow -- with ravenous appetites.
"They might stop going around Vashon Island, which is a big part of the area they use this time of year," said David Bain, a University of Washington researcher who has studied noise effects on killer whales. "You'd be making it harder for the whale to find food at the time of year they need it most."
Killer whales communicate with each other through a series of sounds that can be drowned out by some boat motors. Bain found that orcas expend additional energy when whale-watch boats are nearby.
"It's a small effect, but for a population that's in trouble, it's big enough we need to worry about it," he said.
Whale Watch Operators Association Northwest, the industry trade group, isn't concerned.
President Shane Aggergard points to guidelines that seek to minimize disturbance of the orcas. Members who go astray quickly hear about it from their colleagues, she said.
"To somebody who says that's just self-regulation, well, yeah, it is. And it works pretty well," Aggergard said.
Although the Fisheries Service conservation plan says "additional management measures may be necessary" to curb whale watchers, Gorman said none are planned for now.
The Sound's chinook salmon, a major prey of killer whales, is already protected under the Endangered Species Act. Salmon are also the subject of massive habitat-restoration efforts.
But environmentalists want to see orcas thrive, not just hold their own, and they now have two federal laws to wield: the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
In Florida, where manatees also are protected by both laws and are often harmed by collisions with boats, that translated into a series of areas where boat speed limits are set quite low and strictly enforced, said Eric Glitzenstein, a lawyer who represented environmentalists.
Similarly, pollock-fishing vessels based in Seattle that visit Alaskan waters have seen close-to-shore fishing areas strictly limited because pollock are eaten by Steller sea lions, another endangered marine mammal.
Other issues likely to be raised:
Rebuilding habitat for orcas and their prey, which the Fisheries Service says requires "expansion of local land-use planning and control, including management of future growth and development."
The adequacy of the region's sewage-treatment plants, and the dumping of treated sewage by cruise ships into the orcas' environment.
The Pacific Salmon Treaty between the United States and Canada, which governs how much salmon can be caught on both sides of the border. A major food source for the Sound's orcas is the Fraser River sockeye run.
The city of Victoria's continued dumping of raw sewage south of the Vancouver Island.
The threat posed by long-banned polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, that continue to cycle through the food chain and have accumulated in the orcas' blubber at alarming levels.
The public has until Jan. 3 to comment on the conservation plan. After that, the agency will embark on a key task -- determining what makes up "critical habitat" for the whales.
"You don't just need swimming space. You have to have the ingredients of life," including lots of salmon, said Kathy Fletcher of People for Puget Sound, an environmental group. "You're basically looking at the whole Puget Sound ecosystem."
Gorman, of the Fisheries Service, says a lot of what happens will be determined by environmentalists' lawsuits seeking to prod the agency. "There will be a fair amount of litigation around this listing, but how it will shake out is anyone's guess," he said.
At the Pacific Legal Foundation, senior attorney Rob Rivett expects a slew of lawsuits.
"It's probably limitless," he said, "limited only by the creative thinking of folks."
Public comments are due Jan. 3 for the National Marine Fisheries Service's proposed conservation plan for Puget Sound's resident orcas.
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P-I reporter Robert McClure can be reached at 206-448-8092 or email@example.com.
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