Prince William Sound Orcas May Warrant Protection

ANCHORAGE, Alaska, January 29, 2003 (ENS) - Officials at the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) say a petition to designate the Prince William Sound population of orcas as depleted may have merit.

NMFS is reviewing a petition to designate the AT-1 killer whale group of Prince William Sound as depleted under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. The agency received the petition from the National Wildlife Federation on November 13, 2002.

The petition listed genetic, behavioral, ecological and management reasons for designating the AT-1 group as separate from the general group of transient killer whales in the eastern North Pacific. NMFS will conduct a status review of the Prince William Sound killer whales, including whether the AT1 group should be considered a separate stock.

"Regardless of the outcome of the population status review, we are - and have been - concerned about this group of killer whales," said Ron Berg, assistant administrator for NMFS in Alaska.

The AT1 group is now considered part of a larger population of 346 transient killer whales in the eastern North Pacific. Prince William Sound and Kenai Fjords are also home to about 362 resident killer whales.

Resident and transient killer whales have different eating habits, calls and genetics.

The AT-1 group once numbered 22 animals, but now contains just nine whales, including four females. The AT-1 whales have been observed feeding on harbor seals and porpoises in Prince William Sound and Kenai Fjords in Alaska. No new calves have been sighted since 1984.

"There are only nine whales left - they are dying," said attorney Jim Adams of the National Wildlife Federation. "Listing them as a depleted stock is a neccessary first step toward learning why this particular group is dying off and taking steps to protect them from further harm."

The petitioners suggested that a decrease in available prey, the long term chronic effects of contaminants from the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989 and long term effects of vessel disturbance are possible factors in the decline of the AT-1 group.

"The poor health of the orcas is a warning sign for the entire Gulf of Alaska food chain," said Michelle Wilson of the Alaska Center for the Environment. "Heavy contaminant loads, increasing underwater vessel noise, and harbor seal decline - all these threats to a population facing extinction require NMFS to take action."

Following the status review of the AT-1 group, the agency will publish its findings. If NMFS finds that the stock is separate and depleted, the agency will consider development of a conservation plan for what would be the newly designated AT-1 stock of killer whales.

NMFS is asking for comments and information about this petition and the status of AT-1 killer whales. The agency is interested in hearing about the identification of AT-1 killer whales as a population stock; the historical or current abundance of this group; factors that may be affecting the group; and conservation measures that may promote their recovery.

Comments may be sent to: Assistant Administrator for Protected Resources, National Marine Fisheries Service, 709 W. 9th St, Juneau, AK 99802-1668, or by fax to: 907-586-7012