SEATTLE -- Two years after denying Endangered Species Act protection to killer whales that live much of the year near Washington's San Juan Islands, the federal fisheries agency said Thursday it plans to list the struggling population as a threatened species.
A federal judge last year had ordered the National Marine Fisheries Service to reconsider its decision on the whales after eight environmental groups and concerned individuals filed suit. The threatened-species designation could become final in a year, after a period of public comment.
In 2002, the fisheries service had concluded that the orcas did not warrant protection under the Endangered Species Act because the population did not meet the definition of being biologically distinct from other killer whales. Instead, it designated the whales as a depleted species under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which provides for study and protection of individuals but does not protect habitat.
"Habitat protection is key," said Fred Felleman of the Orca Conservancy, a Seattle-based plaintiff in the case. "Conservationists know that you can't save a species by protecting individuals."
Attorney Patti Goldman of Earthjustice in Seattle called the population "a close-knit family of highly intelligent whales that have been living cooperatively with each other in Puget Sound for thousands of years."
"The federal government refused to protect this remarkable family of whales until the people of Puget Sound came together, and with one voice, demanded it," Goldman said.
The orcas number 84, down from an unknown high that scientists think could have exceeded 200. Two calves born this year will be added to the total if they survive to next year.
Orcas, a kind of dolphin, are found in all the world's oceans.