Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Orcas: Officially Endangered

[A passing J pod orca photographed July 28 at Lime Kiln State Park.]

Perhaps the best political news of the week is the government's decision to endow "endangered" status on the Puget Sound's orcas. As the P-I story explains::
The Endangered Species Act requires the government to devise a recovery plan for the orcas and to identify and safeguard "critical habitat" necessary for their survival. This could trigger a renewed push for the cleanup of contaminated hot spots in the Sound, environmentalists said. They also speculated that restrictions could be tightened on whale-watching boats.

Under the act, federal agencies also must review their actions to make sure they won't hurt the orcas. Concerns have been raised by the potential harm caused by Navy sonar tests.

This was a critical decision, recognizing the growing scientific consensus that this population of these animals is on the brink:
Their numbers dropped precipitously from the mid-'90s until 2001, when they reached a recent low of 79. They currently stand at 90, according to the Center for Whale Research, a Friday Harbor-based scientific group.

The federal agency recently set 84 to 120 orcas as the target population.

"Because the population has such a small number of sexually active males in it, a catastrophic event -- an oil spill, a chemical spill -- could really make a huge difference in the population," said Brian Gorman, spokesman for the fisheries service.

"The fact that the population is small always worries a biologist," he said.

Scientists have identified many other factors that put the local orcas at risk of disappearance. There has been a decline in the amount of salmon -- their favorite food source -- from historic levels. The killer whales are contaminated with industrial pollutants that can reduce fertility and make them more vulnerable to disease. Research has indicated that boat traffic and other manmade noise can disturb the highly social animals.

Coming to terms with those factors is almost certain to bring the scientists into conflict with both local industry and the military. Efforts to restore salmon runs are certain to place limits on the building and development industries. Cleaning up the pollution that's killing the orcas is going to raise antipathies in military circles, since the majority of PCBs (the most lethal of the pollutants killing the whales) are on the Puget Sound's military bases adjacent to the marine waterways, and cleeanup will be costly. The Navy also is likely to be butting heads over their use of sonar in the Sound.

The Seattle Times coverage points out that the initial reaction is that the listing is being greeted on all sides:
Unlike many other ESA listings, groups whose activities could impact whales -- including salmon fishermen and whale-watching tour operators -- applauded this listing.

"It's not like the spotted owl, where it's loggers versus owls," said David Bain, a University of Washington orca expert. "We're all on the same side on this one."

I'm not so certain about that. The orca listing will at least have the effect of putting more bite to the efforts to restore salmon, because the lack of their dietary staple remains the most fundamental problem the orcas face. And that puts the orcas up directly against the same development and agricultural interests that have been fighting salmon restoration.

Those same people, as it happens, are responsible for the one thing that could render the listing moot: the effort in Congress to gut the Endangered Species Act. As the Times piece observes:
Then again, the listing could have no impact at all if Congress changes the ESA, Bain said. In October, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to significantly scale back the federal government's role in preventing species extinction. It's not clear how the Senate will side on the issue.

"It may be that we spent six years trying to get this listing only to have it not mean all that much," he said.

That isn't the only effort on the part of right-wing politicians that could seriously endanger the orcas. As one of the scientists noted, a single oil spill could kill enough whales to drop the population below the critical levels necessary for full recovery.

And, as it happens, Republicans in Congress are working to raise the likelihood of an oil spill by killing the so-called "Magnuson Amendment" that keeps the major supertankers out of the Sound and limits the traffic that does come here.

The first of these efforts was killed in the House, but it was recently resurrected in the Senate by Republican Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska, the rape-and-run pro-development right's favorite senator. The plan is not being very warmly greeted:
Norm Dicks, D-Bremerton, and delegation staffers took them to task for trying to upend 1977 legislation by quietly enlisting Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, and Republicans from other states to champion their cause.

BP would like more oil tankers to be allowed to dock at its Cherry Point refinery in Bellingham.

But the so-called Magnuson amendment, named after the law's author, the state's late U.S. Sen. Warren Magnuson, restricts any increase in oil-tanker capacity in Puget Sound unless it serves Washington state's energy needs.

Internal e-mails from BP executives and one of its lawyers, given to The Seattle Times, indicate that BP has been working closely with Stevens to undo the tanker rule.

You can bet that when these big-money interests come up against the new orca listing, it will be just a matter of time before we start hearing from "scientists" funded by these selfsame interests.

They'll inform us sternly that there are plenty of orcas in the world, so this population doesn't really need protecting. And besides, the new restrictions are costing us jobs, and Americans more oil for their SUVs. And a few hundred other phony talking points designed to let the orcas go extinct here.

Count on it.

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