Center for Biological Diversity

Protecting endangered species and wild places of western North America
and the Pacific through science, policy, education, and environmental law.

May 1, 2001

Brent Plater 510-841-0812
Mobile: 415-572-6989
More Information on Killer Whale Campaign


The Center for Biological Diversity ("CBD") and 10 co-petitioners filed a formal administrative petition today with the National Marine Fisheries Service ("NMFS") to list the Southern Resident killer whale as Endangered under the Federal Endangered Species Act ("ESA"). The petition documents the decline and likely extinction of the most well-studied killer whale population in the world.

Population instability has marked the Southern Residents since the late 1960s when dozens of young killer whales were removed from the population for live display in aquaria. Over the past five years the Southern Residents have declined 15.5%, leaving only 82 individuals in the population at the end of the 2000 survey year. This time the cause of the decline appears to be the synergistic effects of high levels of toxic pollutants, a population decline in their preferred salmon prey, and human disturbance. If the current decline isn't arrested, the Southern Residents will be extinct within 200 years.

"The Southern Resident population is so small and the threats it faces so systemic that extinction is a vivid possibility," said Brent Plater, attorney for CBD and lead author of the petition. "With this petition we are taking a major step toward saving the Southern Residents from extinction."

The Pacific Northwest is home to three sympatric killer whale forms: The meat-eating Transients, the fish-eating Residents, and the recently discovered Offshores. The Residents are organized into two populations: the Northern Residents and the Southern Residents. Each sympatric population shows markedly different physiological, morphological, and behavioral characteristics, and interactions between the populations have not been documented. The differences between the Residents and Transients are so great that some scientists have proposed that they are in fact different species.

The Northern Residents are the most comparable population to the Southern Residents. However, over the same time period that the Southern Residents have show troubling population instability, the Northern Residents have shown a steady increase in numbers. This finding indicates that the Southern Residents are facing unique external threats that are impeding the population's natural survival.

The Southern Residents can be protected under the ESA because they are both "discrete" and "significant" and therefore qualify as a distinct population segment of the species. Distinct population segments are afforded all the protections available under the ESA because they are important to the existence of the species as a whole.

"The significance of the Southern Residents to the species as a whole and to the people of the Pacific Northwest has been extensively documented," said Plater. "The question now is whether NMFS will act to protect the Southern Residents while there is still time to help the population recover."

Whether NMFS will respond to the petition as required by law was put into question when the Bush administration announced it was attempting to eviscerate the ESA by exempting the United States Fish and Wildlife Service-NMFS' sister agency that is entrusted with protecting non-marine imperiled species-from the mandated response timelines and the citizen-initiated enforcement provisions in the ESA. Because NMFS has jurisdiction over imperiled marine species, the Southern Resident petition is not directly affected by this proposal. However, it indicates that the Bush Administration may be unresponsive and attempt to evade the legal requirements of the ESA.

"The Bush administration is attacking citizen participation because they know citizen participation works," said Kieran Suckling, executive director of CBD. "Without actions like we are taking today, hundreds of species would languish in bureaucratic limbo awaiting protection. Which is exactly what the Bush administration wants: the more imperiled species that go extinct the fewer environmental protections Bush's big-money backers have to comply with."

The Center for Whale Research, the Whale Museum, the American Cetacean Society, Ocean Advocates, Orca Conservancy, People for Puget Sound, Friends of the San Juans, the Cascade Chapter of the Sierra Club, the Washington Toxics Coalition, and former Washington Secretary of State Ralph Munro were co-signers on the petition.


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