Questions & Answers on the NOAA Fisheries Decision to Conduct an Endangered Species Act Status Review on Southern Resident Killer Whales (Orcas)

Q. Why is NOAA Fisheries reviewing the status of these orcas under the U.S. Endangered Species Act?
Any person can petition the Secretary (of Interior or Commerce) to list or delist a species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Within 90 days after receiving a petition, to the maximum extent practicable, the Secretary must make a finding as to whether the petition presents substantial scientific or commercial information indicating that the petitioned action may be warranted. If a petition is found to present such information, the Secretary must promptly start a review of the status of the species concerned.

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 (DPS) under the ESA.

Q. What did NOAA Fisheries conclude about the information presented in the recently submitted petition?
We find that the petition, viewed in the context of information readily available in our files, presents scientific information indicating that the petitioned action may be warranted. The standard for determining whether a petition includes substantial information, is if the amount of information presented would lead a reasonable person to believe that the measure proposed in the petition may be warranted. The petition presents new information about genetic samples, data analysis, and interpretation pertinent to the DPS determination. We find the analysis of additional genetic samples and publication of new peer reviewed scientific journal articles regarding the taxonomy of killer whales meets this standard. We're initiating a status review of Southern Resident killer whales to gather all relevant information to determine if the petitioned action is warranted, and to examine the application of the DPS policy.

Q. Does this decision mean that you're likely to delist these killer whales?
No. It means only that we've determined that the petition presents enough substantial scientific and commercial information to indicate that the petitioned action may be warranted. Because the finding at the 12-month stage is based on a comprehensive review of all best available information, as compared to the narrow scope of review at the 90-day stage, which focuses on information set forth in the petition, this 90-day finding does not prejudge the outcome of the status review.

Q. What happens now that you've accepted the petition to delist Southern Resident killer whales under the ESA?
To ensure that our status review is complete and based on the best available scientific and commercial information, we're soliciting new information from the public, governmental agencies, tribes, the scientific community, industry, environmental entities, and any other interested parties about the Southern Resident killer whale DPS. The petition focuses on both the legal and biological aspects of the DPS determination, and the status review will also focus on the DPS determination. We're therefore soliciting new information about the factors considered in the DPS determination.

Q. What will you do next in this ESA petition process?
We're beginning to compile and review the available status information on Southern Resident killer whales. Within 12 months of receiving the petition, by Aug. 2, 2013, we'll make a determination on whether the petitioned action is warranted. If the Southern Resident killer whales are proposed for delisting, that action would be subject to public comment.

Q. Where can I learn more about Southern Resident killer whales?
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 on our killer whale web page .