Seattle (AP) — Killer whales that spend their summers in Puget Sound are a distinct population group and will remain protected under the Endangered Species Act, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced Friday.
NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service spent a year reviewing a petition to delist the orcas. The petition was brought by the Sacramento-based Pacific Legal Foundation on behalf of California farmers who faced water restrictions to protect salmon the orcas eat. They argued the Puget Sound orcas were part of a larger north Pacific population and didn't qualify for the 2005 endangered species listing.
But NOAA spokesman Brian Gorman said those arguments were rejected.
"We have decided these killer whales are a distinct population group," Gorman said. "They have their own language, own food source. They don't interbreed with other groups of killer whales. They meet the legal standard for a distinct population group."
He added officials are continuing to work on recovery plan options.
There are now 82 orcas in three pods — J, K and L — which also spend much of the year in the Pacific off the West Coast.
"It's great news that Puget Sound's orcas will continue to be protected," said Miyoko Sakashita, oceans director for the Center for Biological Diversity in San Francisco.
"It was troubling to even think that the killer whales might have their protections stripped," she said in an email.
Despite their popularity with whale watchers and symbolic value to the region, the orcas are "not in the best of shape," Gorman said.
Their numbers peaked at close to 100 in the 1990s.
"Water quality in Puget Sound isn't the best. There's lots of boat traffic, especially in the summer," Gorman said. "Their food — Chinook salmon are limited. And that's just in Puget Sound. We have no idea what goes on in the ocean where they spend most of their time."
A recovery plan issued in 2008 suggests actions to address threats from pollution, vessel traffic and noise and a limited food supply, NOAA said in a news release.