The Southern Resident orcas, which summer in Puget Sound, the Strait of Juan de Fuca and around Vancouver Island, had declined from 99 whales in 1995 to a low of 79 in 2001, according to the Center for Whale Research. However, they rebounded to 85 this year.
The local orcas are some of the most closely scrutinized marine animals in the world. Each individual mammal has a scientific name and a nickname, such as Luna. Their personalities have been detailed, their ages recorded and their genetic makeup analyzed.
But much about the whales remains a mystery. It's unknown where many of the Southern Residents spend the winter, for example.
The fisheries service in 2002 said the Southern Residents didn't qualify for the Endangered Species Act because the whales were simply part of the worldwide species of orcas. Environmental groups and whale advocates successfully challenged that decision in federal court, forcing the government to reconsider and leading to yesterday's announcement that the Southern Residents are a distinct subspecies.
Environmentalists tick off a list of activities that should get a closer look to protect orcas, including oil tankers and boating. A major oil spill is considered one of the biggest potential threats to survival of these orcas.
Toxic chemicals are another top issue. Scientists say these orcas are among the most contaminated whales on Earth, riddled with long-lived toxins that travel up the food chain.
Municipal sewer systems, pulp mills and other operations that pipe wastewater into the orcas' habitat may need closer scrutiny for whales than for salmon, said Brent Plater, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental group. Cleanup of toxic underwater sites also may need to meet stricter thresholds for orcas, he said.
Information from: The Seattle Times, http://www.seattletimes.com