The state Department of Fish and Wildlife has added Puget Sound's orcas to the state's endangered species list.
"This may be a step toward some significant changes," said David Bain, an affiliate assistant professor of psychology at the University of Washington who has been researching local whales for 25 years. "One of the reasons killer whales have been troubled is that food supply has been depleted. The state has a major role to play in salmon."
The Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission, a nine-member citizens panel that sets policy for the Department of Fish and Wildlife, voted unanimously Saturday in Spokane to approve the listing.
The agency made a recommendation for the listing last month based on a status report indicating the population of "southern residents" in Puget Sound and nearby waters has declined 18 percent since 1995.
The "southern residents" in the inland marine waters off Washington state and British Columbia include 84 orcas - down from a historical high of more than 120 in the 1960s.
A state listing would trigger a recovery plan that would guide efforts to protect the killer whales. Southern resident orcas are listed as "depleted" under the U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act, which also requires a recovery plan for the species.
A decision by the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service to grant the orcas federal endangered status remains in limbo.
"It's critical that the federal government looks into this and that they don't just blow it off," said Russ Cahill, a Fish and Wildlife commissioner. "This is the major flag that waves over the Puget Sound."
NMFS in 2002 ruled that southern residents did not warrant Endangered Species Act protection because they were not a "significant population segment."
In December, U.S. District Judge Robert Lasnik ruled the agency had ignored available science in making its listing decision and ordered it to reconsider.
A "listing under the federal Endangered Species Act would be much more significant," Bain said. "The fact that Washington state and Canadian government has already listed increases the chances that will happen."
Information from: The Seattle Times, http://www.seattletimes.com