CENTER FOR BIOLOGICAL DIVERSITY
SEATTLE — An environmental group filed a lawsuit against the National Marine Fisheries Service Aug. 16, contending the agency has failed to protect West Coast habitat of a distinct and imperiled population of killer whales that is now estimated to include just 75 orcas.
The Center for Biological Diversity filed the lawsuit with the Western District Court of Washington in Seattle, aiming to compel the government to proceed with a rule expanding and revising “critical habitat” designations for coastal waters used by the whales. Such a designation could entail modifying fishing seasons and other human activities on the Pacific Northwest coast. An increase in hatchery production of Chinook salmon is one possible response.
“Time is running out for these magnificent, intelligent orcas,” said Catherine Kilduff, an attorney for the plaintiffs.
The lawsuit says the Southern Resident killer whale population has reached its lowest point in 34 years and is continuing to decline, and that as of June 2018, the population estimate came to just 75 individual whales.
“Low availability of Chinook salmon, the whales’ primary prey, is contributing to their decline, and many of the animals are starving and emaciated. Southern Resident killer whales have failed to reproduce successfully since 2015. The principal threats to Southern Resident killer whales — starvation, contamination from toxic pollution and harassment from noise and vessels — can be reduced by better habitat protections.”
Earlier this month, NOAA Fisheries and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife unveiled a prioritized list of West Coast chinook salmon stocks that are important to the recovery of killer whales. Several of the Chinook stocks are also listed under the Endangered Species Act.
The list gives extra weight to recovering Chinook runs that the Southern Resident killer whales prey on, particularly during the winter.
In January of 2014, The Center for Biological Diversity petitioned the National Marine Fisheries Service to expand critical habitat designations for waters off the Washington, Oregon and California coasts. The agency determined in February of 2015 that revising the designations is warranted, and indicated that new designations would be proposed in 2017.
“To date, the agency has failed to propose, much less finalize, a rule to revised Southern Resident killer whale critical habitat,” the lawsuit states. “This ongoing delay deprives these endangered killer whales of important legal protections and the population has experienced an alarming decline in the meantime.”
“The Southern Resident population is now so small that inbreeding might be affecting individual’s fitness. Federal scientists studying the whale’s genetics found that only two adult males sired more than half of the individuals born since 1990; one of those males is no longer alive,” the complaint continues.
It later adds that the National Marine Fisheries Service has identified the Southern Resident killer whale as a “Species in the Spotlight,” meaning it is among only a few species that the agency considers at most risk of extinction, and a priority for actions aimed at conserving and recovering the species.
The lawsuit includes a map depicting waters that the Center for Biological Diversity propose for critical habitat designation. Those coastal waters stretch from Puget Sound south of Vancouver, British Columbia, south to the San Francisco Bay area.
“If the Fisheries Service expanded critical habitat as requested, it would be required to more closely review” and mitigate activities that could effect that habitat, the lawsuit states.
“Federal law requires protection of endangered species’ habitat,” Kilduff said. “Our basic humanity should lead us to help prevent these beloved orcas from dying out right in front of our eyes. So now we’re turning to the courts to compel the Trump Administration to do the right thing.”