The Whale Museum News & Events
by Robert McClure, Seattle Post-Intelligencer reporter
Expressing "considerable uncertainty" about how to rescue Puget Sound's imperiled orcas, federal fisheries officials said Thursday that the job will take more than 20 years and cost about $50 million.
Even that price tag considers only the extra costs of the National Marine Fisheries Service. The agency's recovery plan for orcas assumes that billions more will be spent to restore Puget Sound and bring back battered salmon runs -- orcas' main food.
Environmentalists attacked the recovery plan, released Thursday, as too vague, while the fisheries service said it lacked enough information about what's depressing the orca population to outline many fixes.
The plan specifically recommends stationing a fulltime rescue tugboat near Washington's outer coast to prevent an oil spill -- the biggest short-term threat to the orcas. It says "more aggressive initial responses" are needed.
It also calls for "greater efforts ... to minimize pollution," including the stormwater that washes filth into the Sound after every good-sized rain.
But mostly the plan, required under the Endangered Species Act, calls for more research and relies on existing efforts -- of uncertain adequacy -- to rescue Puget Sound and its salmon.
"They have not gotten to the level of the specific," said Heather Trim, urban bays coordinator at People for Puget Sound. "Exactly what do we need to do to recover orcas? What exactly do they suggest EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) do? What do they suggest state agencies do?"
Lynne Barre, a fisheries service marine mammal specialist who was principal author of the plan, said science about how to rescue orcas is unsettled on many points.
"Where we had data and information to support specific actions, we put them into the plan," she said. Elsewhere, "we weren't dictating a course of action at this point. We're just not in a position to do that."
Representatives of the Pacific Legal Foundation and the Building Industry Association of Washington, which previously filed an unsuccessful lawsuit to undo the orcas' Endangered Species Act protections, said Thursday that they are no longer following the process closely enough to comment on the new plan.
More scientific advice is pouring in all the time. But even after more is known, the agency won't charge ahead on its own, Barre said.
"We want to evaluate any potential impacts to stakeholders, or economic concerns," he said. "We're working with a whole host of nonprofit groups, tribes, the state -- there's so many partners."
A controversial area requiring more study, according to the plan, is noise from boats. Whale-watching vessels have grown so numerous that scientists suspect their presence amounts to harassment of the whales.
Barre said the agency welcomes local and state efforts to regulate vessel noise near whales. San Juan County passed a law restricting boats near orcas. State lawmakers are considering similar measures.
To change from their current "endangered" status to the less serious "threatened" tag, the orcas' population would have to rise an average of 2.3 percent annually for 14 years, the plan says.
Getting off the endangered species list altogether would require another 14 years of growth at that level.
Because the orcas' numbers have been on the increase since 2001 -- there are now 88 -- that could happen no earlier than 2029.
David Bain, an orca researcher who has done work for the fisheries service, said the agency set its overall recovery goals too low. An example used in the plan -- having 155 whales in the three family groups, or pods -- would mean fewer than 100 reproducing adults, he said.
"I don't think there's anybody in the conservation community who would say that less than 100 adults would be safe," Bain said. "I'd like to see them get to a much higher number."
P-I reporter Robert McClure can be reached at 206-448-8092 or
email@example.com. Read his blog on the environment