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Group wants whale pods taken off endangered list

Aug 03 2012
Southern resident killer whales spend much of their time off the coast of Vancouver Island. 

Southern resident killer whales spend much of their time off the coast of Vancouver Island.

Photograph by: Submitted , Mark Malleson, Center For Whale Research

A non-profit group in California is asking the U.S. government to remove southern resident killer whales from its Endangered Species Act list.

"The killer whales or orcas in the marine waters of the Pacific Northwest have been wrongly placed on the federal Endangered Species Act list and should be removed," says a petition filed by lawyers working pro bono for the Center for Environmental Science, Accuracy and Reliability.

"There is no scientific basis for treating them as part of a separate subspecies that is distinct from other orcas, which may be the most widely distributed mammals on the planet," said Damien Schiff, the principal attorney working on the petition.

The 85 whales, whose three pods spent much of their time in Juan de Fuca Strait and off the west coast of Vancouver Island, were listed as endangered by the U.S. in 2003.

In Canada, the whales were listed as endangered by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in 2001 and were brought under the Species at Risk Act in 2003.

The designations mean both countries must have a recovery strategies - which is how the whales aroused the ire of farmers in the San Joaquin Valley.

Efforts to ensure there are sufficient salmon for whales mean farmers in California's Central Valley now have restricted access to water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin river deltas. Two of those farmers are spearheading the petition.

Schiff believes there is little evidence supporting the contention that the residents are a separate subspecies.

Although resident killer whales eat salmon and transients eat marine mammals, that can be explained by environmental influences rather than genetic differences, Schiff said.

"We also think the genetic analysis is inadequate because it's based on markers from female killer whales, not male killer whales," he said.

The U.S. federal government has 90 days to produce an initial response and, if it decides there is information warranting delisting, it has one year to study the petition.

If the government denies the petition, it is likely the case will head to court, Schiff said.

However, Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research in Friday Harbor, Washington, does not believe the petition has sufficient merit to be seriously considered by government.

"I don't think there's any chance it would succeed.

[The southern residents] have been through all the scientific reviews as a distinct population segment and they meet the criteria," Balcomb said.

"I don't think there's a chance in heck that there will be any scientific reversal and, without that, there will not be a bureaucratic reversal."

jlavoie@timescolonist.com

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