Killer whales listed endangered by Canadians
June 17, 2008 · Updated 2:43 PM
The Southern resident killer whales of Georgia Strait were declared endangered by Canadian officials last week following a four-day meeting of government, university and museum scientists.
Previously, the Southern residents -- J, K and L pods -- had been listed as threatened by Canadian authorities. The new status places the three pods on the list of Species At Risk, the highest rung of the federal ladder for imperiled plants and animals.
While the revised status raises public awareness of the populations plight, the listing does not trigger environmental protection through federal enforcement like the controversial U.S. Endangered Species Act.
The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) made the announcement Nov. 30 after the panel of scientists determined that the Southern residents and their northern neighbors are separate entities.
Relying heavily on research and data collected by the San Juan Island-based Center for Whale Research, the panel concluded that Southern residents do not interact or breed with members of the Northern resident pods despite their close proximity. The home-range of both groups overlap in waters off the eastern shore of Vancouver Island, B.C. near Johnstone Strait.
Meanwhile, the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service has taken on a similar task. The agency agreed this summer to accept a petition that calls for listing the Southern residents under the Endangered Species Act. That petition, filed by a coalition of conservation groups, marine biologists and killer whale advocates, remains under review.
The Southern residents have lost 21 members during the last six years, the groups sharpest decline in 26 years of research compiled at the Center for Whale Research. The Northern resident numbers have remained stable.
Brent Plater, attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, is lead-author of the petition. Plater said the killer whales status in Canada has little influence on the debate underway at NMFS.
"It creates moral accountability at NMFS," said Brent. "However, it appears NMFS is reviewing the petition under guidelines established for listing salmon species," said Plater, who argues that analyzing orca under criteria for salmonids opens the door for a potential lawsuit. "The salmonid guidelines are not applicable to marine mammals."
Plater added that the Canadian listing carries little regulatory or enforcement power. The federal government requires no identifying of critical habitat, establishment of no-take zones, or implementation of restoration or recovery programs.
It is an important type of statement from the government for public awareness, he said. But its role is not substantive and it really just serves as a warning sign.
Paul Wade, a marine biologist with NMFS, said that the outcome of the petition will depend heavily upon whether the Southern residents are classified as a distinct population under federal guidelines. If so, NMFS goes to the next level to determine if the population is significant, Wade said.
Although the body of scientific evidence under review is similar, in Canada they do use a different criteria for listing species, he said.
A draft of the federal agencys decision is expected to go public for review in March, Wade said.
Scott Rasmussen is Staff Reporter for sanjuanjournal.com and The Journal of the San Juans. He can be reached at (360) 378-4191 ext. 13 or email.