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Orcas have a friend in Munro

Bainbridge’s favorite son is in the vanguard of efforts to save the species.

It wasn’t so long ago that Bainbridge children listened to the lullaby of orca whales breathing as they slept near the island’s shore.

“I remember them on Crystal Springs when I was a boy, listening to them for hours at night as they lay in the shallows near the beach,” said former Secretary of State Ralph Munro, recalling the first inkling of his lifelong interest in the powerful mammals. “They were sleeping, but I wasn’t. I was just – for hours – laying in my bed listening to them breathe outside my window.”

It’s a childhood memory Munro hopes future islanders and other Puget Sound residents will experience as local orca populations grow and thrive under new Endangered Species Act protections proposed last week.

Munro joined the Center for Biological Diversity and 10 other environmental groups in a lawsuit challenging a 2002 Bush Administration decision blocking special protections for the Puget Sound’s southern resident orcas.

The administration had stated that the whales were not “biologically distinct” from other orcas, reasoning that the disappearance of the local population would not mean worldwide extinction.

But the U.S. District Court ordered the administration to reconsider, leading to an announcement on Dec. 16 from the National Marine Fisheries Service that orcas should be considered an endangered species.

The NMFS decision bolsters many biologists’ position that “southern resident” orcas have distinct breeding and social habits, markings, hunting behavior, diet and a language unique to the Northwest.

Munro and environmental groups hope new protections under the nation’s strongest conservancy law will put a long list of activities harmful to whales under scrutiny, including oil shipping, shoreline construction projects, motorized boat traffic and dams.

“All of the things that hurt the whales are expanding,” said the Bainbridge native, now a resident of Olympia. “This will get us into a state where we have to pay attention.”

In Munro’s youth, between 150-200 orcas made their home off Washington’s coast and inland sea. In the mid-1970s, following a rash of captures and accidental killings by aquariums and amusement parks, that number sank to 71.

It was one of these captures in 1976 that transformed Munro, who ran the state’s elections system for 20 years, into one of the region’s most outspoken advocates for the whales.

While boating near Olympia, Munro saw orcas swim by at a high speed near the shore. On their tail came a trawler, speedboat and an airplane employed by SeaWorld to corral orcas into nets for display in Southern California.

“They were using explosives, dropping them from the boat and airplane,” he said. “They just kept dropping explosives as fast as they could to harass the whales into the net. They had mother whales inside and baby whales outside. It was gruesome.”

The incident led Munro, then an aide to Gov. Dan Evans, to craft his first lawsuit to protect orcas. Taking the state’s game department to court, Munro sprung the orcas from holding tanks and wrestled an agreement from SeaWorld to never apply for a whale hunting permit in Washington again.

In 1983, the federal government followed suit, invalidating SeaWorld’s permits to capture 100 whales off the Alaska coast.

The cause

Environmental groups are calling the latest lawsuit and the Dec. 16 proposal for endangered species designation immense victories for orcas, and ut couldn’t come at a better time, said Susan Berta of Orca Network, a group that tracks orca movements in Puget Sound.

A combination of declining food sources and the absorption of harmful chemicals has resulted in an alarming rate of orca deaths in the last 10 years, with 20 percent of the southern resident population disappearing since 1995.

Now with just 84 orcas, Berta said ESA designation could boost efforts to save salmon – the whales’ primary food source – and tackle the harmful effects of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) prevalent in Puget Sound waters.

“These two things are creating a double whammy effect,” she said. “When they’re not getting enough to eat they draw upon their blubber reserves, which is where PCBs and other toxins are stored.”

Typically in the form of a stable, oily liquid, PCBs found wide-spread use in the 1930s as a coolant for electrical transformers and capacitors.

The chemical was also used in a variety of industrial products, including insecticides, varnishes and paints. In orcas, the chemical causes reproductive problems and destroys immune systems.

PCBs were banned in the United States in 1976, but toxic levels of the resilient chemical remain in the sound, cycling through the food chain for generations.

“It’s in the salmon orcas eat and their babies are born with it,” she said. “It doesn’t degrade. It’s around forever.”

While PCB levels at 8 to 10 parts per million are considered toxic for humans, male southern resident orcas average almost 150. This level is three times as high as orca populations that ply the Pacific between Vancouver Island and Alaska.

All marine mammals are highly susceptible to PCB toxification due to their bodies’ high fat composition. In 2002, a female orca was found dead off the Olympic Peninsula loaded with 1,000 ppm of the toxin.

“It astounded scientists,” she said. “They had to re-calibrate their instruments to measure it.”

While Berta hopes new protections will boost the cleanup of contaminated sites and sediments, invoking the ESA to protect salmon could be the key factor in ensuring the whale’s survival.

Unlike transient orcas that typically hunt marine mamals alone in the open ocean, Southern Residents depend on a cooperative “pod” to chase a nearly exclusive diet of salmon.

But dammed rivers, disappearing shore habitats and chemical runoff from cars and fertilizers have hit salmon hard.

Shrinking salmon runs in the Columbia River basin have caused the greatest loss of food for southern resident orcas in the last 50 years, according to the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.

But Bob Lohn, head of the NMFS Northwest regional office, said last week that the new designation will be largely cosmetic, offering little change for salmon or orca preservation.

“Our recovery efforts are already underway for these orcas,” he said, adding that an endangered listing will mirror an existing designation that lists orcas as “depleted.”

Lohn also asserted that orcas already enjoy protections under the Marine Mammal Protection Act and that their primary food source is shielded by the Endangered Species Act, which covers all chinook salmon habitat.

But such talk from the federal government makes Berta and other environmentalists uneasy.

“We really have to watch what they, and this administration, do in the future to the ESA,” she said. “They may try to water it down.”

Berta believes the proposed protections will “give teeth” to existing rules and will fill gaps where orcas are vulnerable, including disturbances caused by oil exploration and transport, industrial chemical discharge, large construction projects and other activities that require federal permits.

Other environmental groups foresee added protections under the orca’s endangered species designation for coastal salmon habitat and the possibility of citizen lawsuits to fight polluters.

“We need this because the threats to salmon and the whales keep getting upgraded,” Munro said. “Sewage, sediment, development. It’s everywhere and it makes me very nervous.”

The NMFS could finalize the ESA designation within a year. The agency will take public comment for three months on a draft of the designation. The NMFS will host public meetings on the draft in Seattle on Feb. 17, 2005 and at Friday Harbor, Feb. 28.

Michael Harris, of the Orca Conservancy, considers the administration “very hostile” towards the ESA, but believes the broad-based momentum to protect the orca is unbeatable.

“I don’t think they can wiggle out of this,” he said. “They’re going to have to list them sooner or later, and we hope it’s sooner.”

Harris is counting on bipartisan support for the issue.

“The Endangered Species Act should not be a partisan issue,” he said. “In fact, the ESA began under the Nixon Administration, and our state in particular has a rich history of Republicans helping the whales.

“But now the ESA itself has become endangered. Almost everyone wants the best possible protection for the orcas, and that’s what the ESA does. This is a great Christmas gift for the orcas.”

Munro, a lifelong Republican, hopes that one day the leviathans he once watched itch their hides on Point White’s “rubbing stones” will become a frequent sight to future islanders.

“Like many natives of the Pacific Northwest, I’ve spent my life growing up with these whales,” he said. “There’s a good deal of mystery about them. They’re by far the biggest animal we have here and have become a symbol for the Northwest.

“It makes us proud to know that they thrive in our waters.”

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