US Court overturns decision not to list Orca population as endangered

Festive news for imperiled Killer Whales

For immediate release  December 18, 2003

VANCOUVER, BC – Canadian conservation groups are overjoyed by yesterday’s U.S. Federal Court decision that will greatly improve the Southern Resident orca whales’ chance of survival.

United States District Court Judge Robert Lasnik overturned a controversial July 2002 National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) decision that found the Southern Resident orca population is not ‘significant’ and thus does not qualify for protection under the U.S. Endangered Species Act .

In his decision, Judge Lasnik found the NMFS ignored its own scientific experts and the best available scientific information about the whales. He also found that these errors cast doubt on the correctness of the decision not to list the whales as endangered.  NMFS has 12 months to change its decision.

Canadian conservation groups joined their American allies in court on November 17, 2003, to argue in favour of protecting the Southern Residents, which live in the international waters between British Columbia and Washington State.  The same dwindling population is designated ‘endangered’ in Canada where a recovery strategy is being developed.

“This decision gives the NMFS no option but to listen to their scientists and list the Southern Resident orcas as an endangered species,” said Margot Venton, staff lawyer for Sierra Legal Defence Fund . “This is a call to action to all governments responsible for protecting the killer whales, including the Canadian government. Canada will need to implement a meaningful recovery strategy along with the U.S. to protect this significant population of orcas. Otherwise these whales could face extinction in as little as 30 years.”

“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.”

“This is an early Christmas present for the whales and people on both sides of the border,” said Gwen Barlee, Endangered Species Campaigner for the Western Canada Wilderness Committee. “We applaud the U.S. courts for recognizing this integral part of our shared natural and cultural heritage and for encouraging the protection that the killer whale needs and deserves.”

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.