Imperiled killer whales get their day in U.S. court

Canadian groups make plea to protect transboundary whale population

November 17, 2003

SEATTLE – Canadian conservation groups are joining their American allies in U.S. federal district court today in an attempt to protect the endangered ‘Southern Resident’ population of killer whales that share the international waters between British Columbia and Washington State.

A coalition of American conservation groups  is  appealing a recent U.S. government decision which asserted that the Southern Resident population is not ‘significant’ and thus does not qualify for the highest-level protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Instead it is considered ‘depleted’ under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which offers much weaker protection.

Sierra Legal Defence Fund, acting on behalf of the Georgia Strait Alliance and the Western Canada Wilderness Committee, has made a submission of Canadian interest in the case. The same dwindling population is designated ‘endangered’ in Canada and a recovery strategy is being developed.

“The Canadian government already listed this population of killer whales as endangered,” said Margot Venton, staff lawyer for Sierra Legal Defence Fund. “We are simply asking the U.S. court to do the same and help protect these magnificent creatures before it is too late. Without meaningful legal protection on both sides of the border, these whales could face extinction in as little as 30 years.”

Designating the population as endangered under the ESA will help to alleviate human-caused threats that have reduced the population to as few as 78 whales. The main threats to killer whales are toxic chemicals such as PCBs, declining salmon stocks, and considerable boat traffic in their home range.

“Killer whales in this region are among the most contaminated marine mammals in the world,” said Peter Ronald of the Georgia Strait Alliance. “The ESA designation will provide the strongest possible protection for this imperiled population, requiring a comprehensive recovery plan to address various threats, including PCB contaminated sites in Puget Sound. Both of our countries must do everything possible to reverse their decline.”

“The killer whale has been a beloved cultural icon of the Pacific Northwest for thousands of years,” said Gwen Barlee, Endangered Species Campaigner for the Western Canada Wilderness Committee. “We are asking the U.S. courts to recognize this integral part of our natural and cultural heritage and provide the killer whale with the protection it needs and deserves.”