SPOKANE - The Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission today voted to add Washington state's killer whale population to the list of the state's endangered species.
The state endangered designation is given to native Washington species that are seriously threatened with extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range within the state. The designation directs special management attention and priority to recover the species in Washington.
"This is one of the most important things we will do this year," said Commissioner Russ Cahill of Olympia just before the vote. "Washington state's role in this may be small, and many of the factors in the decline of killer whales are beyond our control, but someone has to speak up when there's a problem."
Canadian officials have already listed the southern resident killer whales as an endangered species. They have protection under the U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act, and federal officials, who have designated the southern resident population as a "depleted stock" under the act, are currently reviewing their decision to not list them under the federal Endangered Species Act.
Puget Sound's resident killer whale population has declined by 18 percent since 1995, according to a recent Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) status report. Several factors that could be responsible for the decline in killer whales, also known as orcas, include a drop in overall salmon abundance, accumulations of long-lived pollutants, and possible harassment from marine vessels.
The Puget Sound resident killer whale population consists of three social groups, identified as the J, K and L pods. Southern resident pods primarily feed on salmon and other fish. They are most often seen in Puget Sound from late spring to fall.
"Killer whales are a treasure, not just for tourists to watch but as an integral part of our community and social structure in the Pacific Northwest," said Commissioner Lisa Pelly of Bainbridge Island. "Growing up in the Puget Sound area, I can't imagine life without them."
Two other killer whale populations, known as transients and offshore transients, can be found in Washington state. Although less is known about these smaller groups, they are also included under the state endangered species designation.
The status report was funded in part by an appropriation from Gov. Gary Locke as part of the governor's larger initiative to strengthen the health of the Puget Sound ecosystem and the fish and wildlife species that depend on it.
"With this listing we will move forward with recovery efforts for Puget Sound killer whales," said WDFW Director Jeff Koenings. "Our biologists will continue to work with U.S. and Canadian officials to develop comprehensive restoration plans."