Backgrounder: Canadian groups intervene to save Killer Whales

Aug. 22, 2006

Killer Whale Facts

  • Orcas, also known as Killer Whales, are actually members of the dolphin family.  Orcas are highly intelligent and are the highest predators in the food chain.
  • Orcas live in matriarchal units comprised of a mother and one or more of her offspring. These units congregate into larger social groups known as pods.
  • Biologists classify orcas in the Northeast Pacific Ocean into three different groups: resident, transient, and offshore orcas.  These three groups are morphologically, genetically, geographically and culturally distinct.
  • Resident orcas feed solely on fish, particularly salmon, while transient orcas eat marine mammals, such as seals.
  • Orcas are an integral part of the ecosystem of the Northwest Pacific Ocean, and are an indictor species revealing the overall ecological health of the marine environment.

Southern Resident Orca Population

  • The Southern Resident Orca population lives in the waters off the coast of southern British Columbia and northern Washington State.  Their range stretches from Puget Sound in the south, through the San Juan and Gulf Islands, and up Georgia Strait about mid-way up Vancouver Island.
  • Between 1993-2003, the Southern Resident Orca population fell by about 20%. With a few calves born in recent years, the population is currently between 85-90 individuals.
  • The Southern Residents are biologically and culturally distinct from the Northern Resident population and from the two groups of Alaska residents. Genetic data shows that the Southern and Northern Residents are reproductively isolated from each other and do not interbreed.  The Southern Residents have a unique acoustic repertoire and language, and do not interact with the Northern Residents.

Threats to Killer Whales

  • The Southern Resident Orcas face a number of serious environmental threats, including declining salmon stocks, increased boat traffic and toxic contamination from bioaccumulative chemicals such as PCBs.
  • Peer-reviewed scientific studies show that British Columbia’s resident and transient orcas are among the most contaminated marine mammals in the world.

Canada’s Species At Risk Act Listing

  • In November 2001, the Southern Residents were listed as endangered in Canada by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife (COSEWIC), the federal scientific body established to evaluate the status of species throughout Canada
  • Canada’s Species At Risk Act (SARA) came fully into legal force on June 1, 2004
  • A draft Recovery Strategy for the endangered Southern Resident Orca population was created by the Killer Whale Recovery Team, which includes both Canadian and American scientists, and released publicly in March 2005.
  • SARA mandates that the final Recovery Strategy be published by June 1, 2006.  The final Recovery Strategy has not yet been published, however it is working its way through the federal approval process.  The Minister of Fisheries & Oceans has committed to publishing it by the end of August 2006.

US Endangered Species Act Listing

  • In 2001, Earthjustice and the Center for Biological Diversity submitted a petition to the US National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) seeking listing under the US Endangered Species Act (ESA) for the Southern Resident Orca population
  • Although the NMFS originally rejected the petition, in 2003 a coalition of environmental groups won a US lawsuit that ultimately forced the NMFS to reconsider, and ultimately to list the population as ‘endangered’ in February 2006
  • Sierra Legal submitted an amicus brief in the 2003 lawsuit on behalf of Georgia Strait Alliance and Western Canada Wilderness Committee

US Recovery Plan and Habitat Designation

  • In June 2006, the NMFS proposed a recovery plan and critical habitat designation for the Southern Resident population, both presently subject to comment at public hearings.
  • The critical habitat designation proposed by NMFS for the Southern Residents includes most of Puget Sound and portions of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, but fails to include near-shore areas that provide habitat for the Southern Residents’ food sources.

The 2006 lawsuit

  • In March 2006, the Washington State Farm Bureau and the Building Industry Association of Washington brought a lawsuit arguing that the endangered species listing is unlawful
  • The industry groups argue that the Southern Residents do not fit the EPA’s definition of species as a “species, subspecies or distinct population segment of a species.”
  • Georgia Strait Alliance and Western Canada Wilderness Committee have been given standing in this lawsuit as Amici Curiae – literally meaning “Friends of the Court”.
  • Sierra Legal will present an amicus brief on their behalf, explaining the broader factual context, including that the Southern Residents orcas have been listed in Canada as an endangered wildlife species under SARA.
  • Similar listing processes and definitions exist under SARA and the ESA and there must be a consistent approach to interpreting these Acts where the species is transboundary.  International law obliges states to prevent significant transboundary harm.
  • Sierra Legal’s amicus brief will be filed by August 31, 2006.  The case is expected to be heard early next year.