| For Immediate Release:
October 27, 2003
NMFS Proposes Listing Prince William Sound Orcas as “Depleted” under the MMPA
Anchorage (AK)-In response to a petition filed by the Center for Biological Diversity and seven other conservation groups, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) announced on Friday a proposed rule to designate Alaska’s most imperiled orca population as a “depleted stock” under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA). The orca population, known to scientists as the “AT1 population,” is a transient group that ranges from Prince William Sound to Kenai Fjords. The population has declined from at least 22 animals to just 9 over the past 13 years.
Corrie Bosman, Alaska Program Coordinator with the Center for Biological Diversity was pleased with NMFS announcement. “While in no way does this guarantee the future survival of this population of whales, we are really pleased that NMFS has recognized that the AT1 population is in need of protection,” Bosman stated. “Today’s decision is a first step toward learning more about the decline of this unique population of killer whales and working to prevent them from future harm.” Bosman added.
NMFS is responsible for managing orcas pursuant to the MMPA, but generally takes no protective actions for particular stocks unless the stock is listed as “depleted.” Once a “depleted” finding is made, the NMFS is required to develop a Conservation Plan to help the depleted population recover. “Due to the imminent situation these whales are facing, we hope to see a final rule published quickly and expect a Conservation Plan to be developed and implemented immediately thereafter.” Bosman added. “We are hopeful that a final positive determination will not only benefit these orcas, but will help in better understanding and protecting the Prince William Sound ecosystem on which the whales depend,” noted Bosman.
Spurred by concern over the declining number of whales in the AT1 group and continued threats to the population, several conservation groups filed the petition to list the AT1 group as “depleted” under the MMPA in November 2002. While the exact cause of the AT1’s decline is not known, it is suspected that some individuals may have been harmed by exposure to crude oil during the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster. The petitioners are also concerned about exceptionally high contaminant loads found in the whales. “Tests have shown these whales rank among the most contaminated marine mammals ever measured. This is a very scary indicator for the health of Prince William Sound,” stated Brent Plater, an attorney and marine mammal specialist with the Center for Biological Diversity. It is thought that underwater vessel noise, which has been increasing as more vessels use Prince William Sound, is disrupting the whales’ hunting patterns. Lastly, the primary prey of the AT1 whales- harbor seals, have declined in the region by more than 80 percent over the last 20 years.
Today’s announcement by NMFS adopts the recommendation of the Alaska Regional Scientific Review Group, an independent group that makes recommendations to the Fisheries Service, to designate the AT1 whales a separate stock. To date the AT1 whales have been lumped together in the larger category of Eastern North Pacific Transients, a group that numbers almost 350 individuals with a range stretching from western Alaska to California. “Finding that the AT1 orcas are a unique stock that meets the definition of “depleted” is a no-brainer. We are glad to see NMFS do the right thing in this case,” noted Bosman. NMFS is accepting public comment on the proposed rule through January 22, 2004.