August 3, 2006

Orcas: the next killer environmental issue?

  • Those already struggling with Puget Sound’s environmental issues are likely to feel more pressure with the listing of the whales as endangered.
    Point Environmental Consulting

    Pacific Northwest developers, governments and industries are well aware of how the listing of animals under the Endangered Species Act can wreck havoc on their activities.

    Image courtesy of NOAA Fisheries

    The listing of northern spotted owl and Puget Sound chinook both had tremendous economic impacts that continue to this day.

    Now the listing of southern resident killer whales -- affectionately called orcas and with a huge public appeal -- has some waiting for what might happen next.

    Rather than wait, the Washington State Farm Bureau and the Building Industry Association of Washington decided to act. They filed a lawsuit against the listing, claiming that it “will result in needless water and land-use restrictions on Washington farms, especially those located near rivers inhabited by salmon,” the orcas’ primary prey.

    Red flags were raised even higher when NOAA Fisheries announced its proposal to designate essentially all of Puget Sound, Haro Strait and Strait of Juan de Fuca as protected critical habitat for orcas.

    Don’t existing protections cover the orcas?

    Most initial press coverage of the orca listing and proposed critical habitat pointed out that since restoring the orcas’ primary prey -- chinook salmon -- is believed to be key to the orca’s recovery, the extensive protections already in place to protect salmon should cover the orca as well.

    This is probably true for most routine, non-controversial projects, such as ferry dock repairs, port improvements and marina maintenance.

    But for controversial projects and activities already struggling with Puget Sound’s environmental issues, the endangered orcas may prove to be yet another regulatory and public relations hurdle. This includes many projects and activities being looked at as part of ongoing efforts to address long-term problems with the health of Puget Sound.

    Industry areas to watch

    Wastewater. With nearly 4 million people living in the Puget Sound region, and another 1.4 million expected by 2020, stormwater and wastewater management will remain a high priority. With the listing of the orcas, wastewater treatment managers will likely see even more pressure (and perhaps more funding) to address toxins that enter the wastewater stream and that might eventually end up in an orca. Hot topic chemicals include flame retardants, prescription drugs, deodorant, shampoo and cosmetics.

    Toxic cleanup. Efforts to reduce toxins in Puget Sound and the Columbia River are likely to get a major boost with the listing, potentially spurring more large-scale, ecosystem-level efforts. Estimates to cleanup just the most contaminated areas of Puget Sound range from $400 million to more than $1 billion. Governor Gregoire this year proposed to add $42 million to the $90 million already earmarked for Puget Sound-related work each year, with much of that focused on toxic cleanup.

    Private shoreline development. While private shoreline development in Puget Sound is already a huge challenge, such development will face additional challenges, particularly projects opposed by neighbors and/or environmental groups. Developments that can expect to face greater challenges are commercial shellfish and net pen operations, piers for other than public use, marinas, shoreline resorts and residential developments.

    Petroleum. The listing of orcas as endangered will likely increase pressure on Washington’s refineries to bolster spill prevention measures and to pay for additional spill response readiness.

    Navy. Already under attack for its use of active sonar, which has been blamed by some for the stranding and deaths of porpoises and other marine mammals, the Navy should expect to see the orcas brought up as part of efforts by environmental groups to limit naval exercises in Washington’s marine waters.

    Cruise ships. Listing of the orcas may revive efforts for more regulation of cruise ships. According to the Port of Seattle, cruise ship visits to Seattle have grown from only six ships and 7,000 passengers in 1999 to a projected 200 ships and 740,000 passengers this year. A bill for tighter regulations failed in committee after the major cruise lines signed an environmental agreement with the Department of Ecology. But the orca listing might renew calls for more regulations.

    Shipping. According to the Washington Public Ports Association, Puget Sound container ship traffic -- already some of the heaviest in the world -- is expected to more than double by 2020. These numbers, together with the supersized ships that are growing bigger and bigger, have come to the attention of some environmental groups and regulatory agencies. With the Puget Sound shipping lanes going straight through some of the orcas’ prime habitat, the shipping industry might need to start considering the orcas.

    Commercial/recreational fisheries. In a study commissioned by NOAA Fisheries, commercial and recreational fisheries were identified as the most likely Northwest industries to be economically impacted by the orca listing and critical habitat designation. Puget Sound’s last substantial commercial salmon fishery -- chum -- might be in trouble, since chum salmon are believed to be an important food source to the orcas in late fall and winter, when their preferred prey of mature chinook are absent.

    Agriculture. Orcas will likely be used as part of ongoing efforts by environmental groups to reduce pesticide use on Washington’s farms.

    Whale watching. Ironically, the industry that is arguably the most likely to directly disturb orcas will probably benefit from the increased publicity of the listing. The industry is already very careful about minimizing disturbances and will probably just keep being careful.

    Government, research and consulting. The rise of consciousness and concern related to Puget Sound -- as well as the flow of money directed to it -- has spawned a growing number of jobs in government, university, research and consulting. In March 2005, over 800 people attended the Puget Sound Georgia Basin Research Conference. Taking care of our inland marine waters has become an industry in itself, and the listing of the orcas can only further the growth of that industry.

    Only time will tell

    The economic effects of listing orcas as endangered will probably never come close to that seen with the listing of the spotted owl or chinook salmon, since the brunt of restrictions have already been felt by restrictions to protect salmon.

    While the listing of the orca might not have dramatic economic effects on its own, it does perhaps signal the culmination of the health of Puget Sound as being one of the hottest environmental topics of our times.

    Only time will tell, both in terms of how NOAA Fisheries regulates actions that may affect orcas and in terms of the recovery of the orca population.

    With three orcas being born into the population just this year and no deaths, things are at least heading in a positive direction.

    Steve Hall is a certified wildlife biologist that has addressed concerns for marine mammals on projects in the Gulf of Mexico, California, Washington and Alaska, including Endangered Species Act consultation documents for orcas.

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