The Associated Press
June 01, 2002
Sen. Maria Cantwell opened the three-day Orca Recovery Conference with a plea yesterday for better protection of killer whales, whose numbers are dwindling due to pollution and other pressures.
The state's junior U.S. senator made four recommendations in her keynote address at Kane Hall on the University of Washington campus in Seattle. All of them are linked to the troubles of the orphaned female orca from Canada that has been hanging around the Vashon Island ferry dock since January.
Cantwell called for a formal U.S.-Canadian protocol to allow speedy handling of situations like this, a proposal also backed by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. Cantwell also urged new restrictions on whale-watching operations, increased federal protections for the region's dwindling orca population and more funds for whale research and rescue programs.
The National Marine Fisheries Service's decision to try to help A-73 came only after months of discussion, observation and tests. The agency plans to capture her, treat a range of apparently minor symptoms and then if no erious health problems are detected return her to Canadian waters near Vancouver Island, where her family group spends summers.
"Now comes the hard part doing our best to reunite the whale with her pod," Cantwell said.
"I hope that A-73" the name scientists use for the young female, based on her birth order in Canada's A-pod "can be an example of the difference that we can make in working together cooperatively."
Meeting of Orca activists
Cantwell's remarks marked the start of a weekend of presentations and discussions by orca activists; U.S., Canadian and state researchers; and the nonprofit Center for Whale Research in the San Juan Islands. Topics include the effects of oil, noise and PCB pollution; the status of Northwest fish stocks that orcas rely on for food; and the history and impact of whale-watching operations.
The proposal for a U.S.-Canadian protocol was formally made in a letter to fisheries officials in both countries sent yesterday by Cantwell and Murray. They cited A-73 and the state's dwindling resident orca population, down from 98 in 1995 to 78 today.
"The orcas that reside in the Pacific Northwest do not know national borders or boundaries, and we need to combine our efforts to ensure that proper stewardship of these wild marine mammals is undertaken," they said.
"We believe A-73 is merely a symptom of what appears to be a larger problem regarding the health of the Pacific Northwest whales," they said, adding, "The decline of the whale population ... is an issue that impacts our entire region and cannot be dealt with in an isolated manner."
Activists have requested an endangered-species listing for the region's orcas, and a decision on that request is expected this summer.
In the meantime, Cantwell said, a "depleted designation" under the Marine Mammal Protection Act would expand federal protection for orcas under current law. It would give support for developing a conservation plan, she said.
"The time for taking action to save the orcas is now," Cantwell said. "There can be no doubt that the southern resident orcas" the three pods based near Washington's San Juan Islands "are a population in deep trouble."
Citing new research that indicates boat traffic can hinder whales' sonar ability to hunt for food, she also suggested National Marine Fisheries Service begin using its authority to enforce anti-harassment laws. While the whale-watching industry has set a 100-yard limit for proximity to whales, it cannot be expected to take on enforcement, she said.
Federal support urged
Cantwell also urged more federal support for existing programs that finance study of orcas and other declining marine mammals.
A-73, orphaned last year, apparently wandered into Puget Sound well south of her pod's range area after she lost contact with her family group. No one can say whether her pod will accept her.
Solitary juveniles are unique to the experience of area researchers who've been in the field over a quarter century, but this year there are two. The other a young male from the San Juans called L-98 has been foraging for fish on the west side of Canada's Vancouver Island. Activists are hoping to eventually return him to the San Juans-based L-pod.
Orcas, actually a type of dolphin, are found in all the world's oceans.