Endangered no more? Petition prompts review of killer whale listing

Prompted by a petition by the Pacific Legal Foundation, federal officials will take another look to determine whether the killer whales of Puget Sound deserve protection as an endangered species.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency, parent agency of the National Marine Fisheries Service, a petition filed by the California-based Pacific Legal Foundation in August presents information published in scientific journals that address killer whale genetics and how closely related the Southern resident killer whales are to other populations, and that meets the agency's criteria for review of the population's status as a federally endangered species.

Listed as endangered in 2005, the Southern residents consists of three closely related clans, J, K and L pods, and the population totals 86 animals with the addition of a newborn, J-49, in early August. It consisted of 88 animals when the population was declared endangered in 2005.

"The petition asserts that the Southern Resident killer whales are actually part of a much larger population and are, therefore, not in danger of extinction," NOAA noted in a Nov. 26 press release announcing it would conduct a review of the population and its listing.

In qualifying as endangered under the federal law, the Southern residents were determined to be a "distinct population segment" of killer whales, with a unique dialect, a unique genetic line and the only orca population to feed extensively on salmon. Acceptance of the petition does not suggest that a proposal to delist will follow, according to NOAA.

The petition was filed by the Pacific Legal Foundation on behalf of the Center for Environmental Science Accuracy and Reliability and two California farms, Empresas Del Bosque and Coburn Ranch.

The Southern residents are a "major" focus of the environmental assessment now underway for the Gateway Terminal Project proposed at Cherry Point, near Bellingham, which, if constructed, would serve as as a export facility for bulk shipments of coal traveling through San Juan Islands waterways en route to markets in Asia.

The Fisheries Service will have a year from receiving the petition to make a decision on whether delisting is warranted. Any formal proposal to delist would be followed by a public comment period and public hearings before a final decision about official listing could be made.

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