June 25, 2002
FISHERIES SERVICE: PUGET SOUND ORCAS NOT SIGNIFICANT
Agency refuses to protect killer whales, placates public with meaningless designation
CONTACT: BRENT PLATER 415-572-6989
The National Marine Fisheries Service ("Fisheries Service") announced today that Puget Sound's Southern Resident Killer Whales are not significant and will not be protected under the Endangered Species Act ("ESA").
The decision was in response to a petition to list the Southern Resident killer whales as endangered under the ESA, filed by the Center for Biological Diversity and 11 other conservation groups last year, including 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, Project SeaWolf, and former Washington Secretary of State Ralph Munro.
"Today's decision is a new low in the annals of the Fisheries Service," said Brent Plater, attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity and lead author of the petition. "They have completely abdicated their responsibilities to protect this population, ignoring the will of the people, the will of Congress, and the statements of the world's leading killer whale biologists."
While admitting that the Southern Residents face extinction, the Fisheries Service stated that the Southern Residents don't qualify under the ESA for protection because they aren't 'significant.' However, the significance of the Southern Residents, including its genetic, behavioral, ecological, and scientific significance, was documented by the co-petitioners and supported by independent scientists.
With unanimous scientific backing and no political opposition to the listing, the negative finding on the petition seems to be part of the Bush Administration's larger political agenda: to eliminate the Endangered Species Act as it is currently known. "The Bush Administration has already tried to eviscerate the ESA, and would rather see the Southern Residents go extinct than have them become the ESA's most visible and charismatic success story," said Plater.
Instead of protecting the Southern Residents as required by law, the Fisheries Service designated the Southern Residents as "depleted" under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. However, the MMPA has been protecting the Southern Residents for over 30 years to no avail, and the depleted designation will provide no additional conservation benefits to the Southern Residents.
"The 'depleted' designation is a death-knoll, because it does not and cannot address any threats that the Southern Residents currently face," said Plater. "There is no mandatory recovery duties, no habitat protection, no ability to address toxic contamination. And NMFS will wield this designation to prevent future conservation efforts that could make a difference to the population."
The Center intends to press forward with their attempts
to protect the Southern Residents under the ESA. "The Endangered
Species Act is our nation's most important environmental law not only
because it contains such strong protections for endangered species but
also because it is based on principles of participatory democracy and
governance by the citizenry," said Plater. "We now know that
the Fisheries Service won't conserve this species on its own; its up to
all of us to turn the Agency around."
WHALE CONSERVATION HEAD-TO-HEAD: "DEPLETED" VS. "ENDANGERED"
The Marine Mammal Protection Act ("MMPA") and the Endangered Species Act ("ESA") have both been proposed as tools to protect Puget Sound's Southern Resident killer whales. However, only "endangered" status under the ESA can address the threats facing the Southern Residents. "Depleted" status under the MMPA provides no additional conservation benefits beyond current law.
· ONLY THE ESA HAS THE POWER TO ADDRESS TOXICS. The Southern Residents are known to have high concentrations of toxics in their blubber, contributing to their decline. The ESA's "consultation requirement" would require all federal agencies and permittees to eliminate or mitigate any pollution that might harm the Southern Residents or their habitat. The MMPA contains no similar provisions.
· ONLY THE ESA PROTECTS HABITAT. The Southern Residents' habitat faces many threats, including declining food, increasing ship activity, and risks of oil spills. The ESA requires critical habitat to be protected, even when the Southern Residents are living in other parts of their range. The MMPA contains no similar provisions; it has never been used to protect habitat.
· ONLY THE ESA REQUIRES PROACTIVE STEPS TOWARDS RECOVERY. The ESA requires all federal agencies to act affirmatively to recover endangered species, and allows citizen to ensure that the federal government fulfills this obligation. The MMPA has no proactive conservation requirements, only applies to NMFS, and does not even set recovery as its ultimate objective.
· ONLY THE ESA PROVIDES ENFORCEABLE RECOVERY PLANS. Protecting the Southern Residents will require not only the creation of a recovery plan, but also its timely implementation. The ESA's recovery planning process creates binding recovery actions. The MMPA's conservation planning is non-binding and unenforceable.
· ONLY THE ESA PROVIDES FULL PROTECTION UNDER LAW. By law, any species that is listed as endangered under the ESA is automatically protected as depleted under the MMPA. Endangered status engages both the ESA and the MMPA protection mechanisms, giving NMFS the full range of recovery tools available under current law. Depleted species do not automatically gain full protections.
· ONLY THE ESA CAN PREVENT FURTHER WHALE HARASSMENT. The MMPA currently gives the National Marine Fisheries Service ("NMFS") the authority to regulate activities that harass marine mammals. Depleted designation provides no additional regulatory authority over activities that harass Southern Residents. The ESA listing is necessary to improve regulations that harass whales and to make the regulations enforceable.
· DEPLETED STATUS DOESN'T ADDRESS ANY THREAT TO THE SOUTHERN RESIDENTS. Depleted status only protects marine mammals from fisheries bycatch and subsistence hunting. Neither subsistence hunting nor fisheries bycatch has been identified as a threat to the Southern Residents; therefore depleted status cannot aid recovery.
· THE MMPA HAS APPLIED FOR OVER 30 YEARS, YET THE SOUTHERN RESIDENTS OCCILATE TOWARD EXTINCTION. The basic protective provisions of the MMPA have been in place for years, and yet the Southern Residents are experiencing the most dramatic decline yet recorded. The depleted designation provides no additional benefits. Without the ESA, we cannot expect the Southern Residents to recover.