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Munro wins one for the whales

Ralph Munro -
Ralph Munro
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Orcas’ designation as an endangered species is a victory for the island native.

Ralph Munro can finally claim victory in his hard-fought battle to win the ultimate protection for Puget Sound’s resident killer whales.

The federal government announced last week that a group of killer whales that visits Puget Sound every summer has been listed under the Endangered Species Act, which officially signifies a species is at risk of extinction.

“I’ve been fighting for this since 1976,” said Munro, a native islander and former secretary of state. “Their numbers have been in decline for years. Being added to the Endangered Species Act will mean more protections and an emphasis on cleaning up toxins in our water.”

Munro, a Republican and longtime champion of whale conservation, had joined 11 environmental groups in a lawsuit challenging a 2002 Bush Administration decision blocking special protections for the sound’s “southern resident” killer whales.

The administration had stated that the whales were not “biologically distinct” from other killer whales, 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 a decision by the National Marine Fisheries Service last year that the whales should be considered an endangered species. They were so designated last week.

Protection under the nation’s highest conservancy law bolsters many biologists’ position that the sound’s killer whales have distinct breeding and social habits, markings, hunting behavior, diet and a language unique to the Northwest.

Munro and environmental groups say the new protections will put a long list of activities harmful to whales under scrutiny, including oil shipping, shoreline construction projects, motorized boat traffic and dams.

“Recent information and further analysis lead our agency to conclude that the southern resident killer whale population is at risk of extinction and should be listed as endangered,” said Bob Lohn, regional administrator for the federal Fisheries Service’s Northwest region. “By giving it protection under the ESA, we have a better chance of keeping this population alive for future generations.”

Munro also hopes the whales will return to Bainbridge Island’s shores with the frequency he remembers as a boy growing up on the south end.

During the 1940s and 50s, Munro listened to the giant mammals sigh in their sleep near Crystal Springs and watched them scrub their hides on Point White’s “rubbing stones.”

In Munro’s youth, between 150 and 200 killer whales 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 the late 1970s 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 witnessed a group of killer whales swimming at high speed with a trawler, speedboat and an airplane in hot pursuit.

The whale hunting team had been employed by SeaWorld to corral killer whales into nets for display in Southern California.

“They were using explosives, dropping them from the boat and airplane,” Munro 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 killer whales. Taking the state’s game department to court, Munro freed the whales from holding tanks and negotiated an agreement from SeaWorld to never apply for whale-hunting permits in Washington again.

While hunting had taken a toll on the sound’s killer whales, greater dangers persisted long after their capture was banned. The whale’s chief source of food – salmon – has been in sharp decline, forcing whales to rely on their fat reserves, which contain high rates of toxins drawn from the sound’s waters.

Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), formerly used in a variety of industrial products, have caused immune system and reproductive problems in whales. 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.

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

According to the Orca Network, PCBs and the decline in salmon have contributed to an alarming rate of killer whale deaths in the last 10 years, with 20 percent of the sound’s killer whales disappearing since 1995.

Thanks to their designation under the ESA, a resurgence in the whale population may be on the horizon, Munro said, but only if local jurisdictions take the risk of extinction to heart.

“Along with what’s going on with the federal government, we have to have strong critical areas ordinances in the state to protect streams and the salmon that spawn in them,” he said.

The burden of protecting whales isn’t just on government. Each citizen can make personal choices that lessen human impacts on the whales.

“You shouldn’t even think twice about dumping motor oil down a drain,” he said. “Everybody needs to think about this because we’re all a part of it.”

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