Trump Administration Sued For Failing To Protect Endangered West Coast Orcas As Their Numbers Drop To Only 73

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Conservation groups sued the Trump administration last week for ignoring a legal petition to protect critically endangered Southern Resident killer whales in the heart of their Salish Sea habitat.

The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court in Washington by the Center for Biological Diversity and Orca Relief Citizens’ Alliance (ORCA), follows news that three more of these starving orcas are presumed dead, dropping their population to just 73.

The National Marine Fisheries Service was notified last August that its failure to respond to the 2016 petition violated federal law. The proposal calls for a rule to exclude vessels from the orcas’ prime feeding areas, a designated “whale protection zone,” from April through September of each year to protect the orcas from noise and disturbance. A “no wake” speed limit would apply to any vessels exempted from the exclusion.

“These orcas are dying out and urgently need our help. Creating a whale protection zone in the heart of their habitat is a crucial step we can take today,” said Julie Teel Simmonds, an attorney with the Center in a statement. “Southern Residents need more salmon and better protection throughout their range. But let’s start by giving them the peace and quiet they need to find food in the Salish Sea.”

Southern Resident killer whales are starving because the wild salmon run has been devastated by dammed rivers, streamside development and fishing. The missing orcas J17, K25 and L84 all showed signs of malnutrition before disappearing.

In addition to a lack of prey availability, the orcas are harmed by boat traffic and noise, which masks the echolocation they use to feed, navigate and communicate.

“The Southern Residents flourished in these waters for thousands of years,” said Janet Thomas, Executive Director of ORCA. “They are among the most intelligent marine mammals in the oceans of the world and are held sacred to indigenous peoples along the West Coast. They need their home back.”

Last year, Governor Jay Inslee’s Southern Resident Killer Whale Recovery Task Force recommended 36 measures to protect the orcas in Puget Sound, including vessel restrictions in orca habitat. The legislature ultimately only adopted a handful of the recommendations. Canada went further in May 2019, announcing that no vessel traffic would be allowed from June through October in three “interim sanctuary zones” in prime orca feeding habitat.

In April, the Center sued the Trump administration to compel an updated analysis of how salmon fishing is harming these endangered orcas; the administration has agreed to issue that analysis before May 1, 2020. In response to another Center lawsuit, the Trump administration announced last month that by Oct. 7, it will propose expanding critical habitat protections to cover the Southern Residents’ full West Coast range.

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