Question and Answers on 12-month Finding On Petition To Delist Southern Resident Killer Whale Distinct Population Segment Under The Endangered Species Act

Q. Why did NOAA Fisheries review the status of these orcas under the ESA?

A.  In August 2012, we received a petition submitted by the Pacific Legal Foundation on behalf of the Center for Environmental Science Accuracy and Reliability, Empresas Del Bosque, and Coburn Ranch to delist the endangered Southern Resident killer whale distinct population segment under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The petitioners asserted that the classification of the Southern Resident killer whale population as a distinct population segment of an unnamed North Pacific Resident subspecies was in error and therefore NMFS should delist the distinct population segment.  We found that the petition viewed in the context of information readily available in our files presented scientific information indicating that the petitioned action may be warranted.  We published our 90-day finding about the petition in the Federal Register and initiated a status review of Southern Resident killer whales to determine if delisting the Southern Resident distinct population segment is warranted. To ensure that our status review was complete and based on the best available scientific and commercial information, we solicited new information from the public, government agencies, tribes, the scientific community, industry, environmental entities, and any other interested parties about the Southern Resident killer whale distinct population segment. 

Q.  What did NOAA Fisheries conclude from their status review over the last 12 months?

A.  After reviewing the petition, public comments, and the best available information, we found that the majority of new information available since the previous 2004 status review (Krahn et al. 2004), and 2005 endangered listing, supports or strengthens: (1) our previous conclusion that North Pacific Resident killer whales are a subspecies of resident killer whales and (2) that Southern Residents are a distinct population segment of that subspecies.  We found that the new information regarding genetic samples and data analysis, including the Pilot et al. (2010) paper presented in the petition, strengthens the lines of evidence to support the identification of the North Pacific Residents as an unnamed subspecies of Orcinus orca.  We determined that the Southern Resident killer whale population is discrete and significant with respect to this North Pacific Resident subspecies, and therefore constitutes a valid distinct population segment.  We therefore concluded, based on our review of the best available information, that the original decision on classification was not in error and that delisting the Southern Resident killer whale distinct population segment is not warranted.

Q.  By not delisting the Southern Resident killer whales, what does this decision mean?

A.  Southern Resident killer whales remain listed as endangered. 

Q.  What will you do next in this ESA process?

A.  We’ve made great progress toward recovery since the listing in 2005.  In 2011 we completed a 5-year review that highlights research results that have taught us about the whales and the threats they face.  We know more about exactly which salmon the whales are eating and how much food the whales need and in 2012 we completed of a scientific review of the effects of salmon fisheries on Southern Resident killer whales.  We’ve learned about how vessels may affect the whales and used this information to develop regulations to protect killer whales from vessel impacts (76 FR 20870, April 14, 2011). We are working with the Environmental Protection Agency on technical working groups to assess contaminant exposure and coordinate with the Puget Sound Partnership on actions that will protect and restore an important habitat for the whales.  We are working closely with partners like the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife to address the threat of an oil spill in the killer whales’ habitat by developing a killer whale-specific oil spill response plan.  We have many education and outreach partners, such as museums and aquariums, non-profit groups, researchers, and schools, that help us raise awareness and educate the public about recovery of the Southern Residents and how individuals and organizations can contribute to conservation.  We will continue to address data gaps and apply feedback from research and monitoring to refine ongoing recovery actions and develop and prioritize new actions to restore the endangered Southern Residents to the point where they no longer require the protection of the ESA.

Q.  Where can I learn more about Southern Resident killer whales?

A.  The killer whale (Orcinus orca), or orca, is found in all oceans. The Southern Resident killer whales are composed of J, K, and L pods. These whales are the "resident" type, fish-eating whales, spending specific periods each year in the San Juan Islands and Puget Sound. The Southern Residents feed mostly on salmon.  We have information on the ESA listing, status reviews, recovery planning and critical habitat posted on our killer whale web page.

Q:   What can I do to make a difference?

A.  The Recovery Plan for Southern Resident Killer Whales identifies many actions that our partners and concerned citizens can take to contribute to the conservation and recovery of endangered Southern Resident killer whales.   To learn more, visit our Recovery Implementation web page.

The Seattle Aquarium has also put together a resource to help you learn about killer whales and how you can help: http://www.seattleaquarium.org/orcas

Q:   Is NOAA considering another petition regarding the status of Southern Resident killer whales?

A.        Yes.  On January 25, 2013 we received a petition submitted by ­­the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals Foundation on behalf of the Animal Legal Defense Fund, Orca Network, Howard Garrett, Shelby Proie, Karen Munro, and Patricia Sykes to revise the endangered listing of Southern Resident killer whales to include Lolita in the ESA listing of the Southern Resident killer whales distinct population segment.  Lolita is a female killer whale captured from the Southern Resident population in 1970, who currently resides at the Miami Seaquarium in Miami, Florida.  On April 29, 2013 we made a 90-day finding accepting the petition and requested information on her genetic heritage to inform our review of the petition.  The public comment period closed on June 28, 2013.  A 12-month finding on the Lolita petition is due January 25, 2014.