IMAGE: ORCA OFF SEATTLE
Cheryl Hatch  /  AP
A one-ton female juvenile orca breaches the waters off Seattle as a ferry passes in this photo from June 2002.
msnbc.com
updated 11/15/2005 3:35:12 PM ET 2005-11-15T20:35:12

Acknowledging that a population of orcas — one of the icons of the Pacific Northwest — was in greater danger than it initially feared, the Bush administration on Tuesday gave the group the most protections possible under the Endangered Species Act.

“Recent information and further analysis leads our agency to conclude that the Southern Resident killer whale population is at risk of extinction, and should be listed as endangered," Bob Lohn, head of the National Marine Fisheries Service in the Northwest, said in a statement.

“By giving it protection under the ESA,” Lohn said of the population, “we have a better chance of keeping this population alive for future generations.”

The population is one of three found in Puget Sound, a body of water off Washington state.

The agency, part of the Commerce Department, last year proposed that the group be listed as threatened, not endangered. A species listed as threatened is considered at risk of becoming endangered; an endangered species is considered at risk of extinction.

But conservation groups appealed the initial listing, saying the population should get endangered status.

The service noted that the population saw a 20 percent decline in the 1990s. Threats include vessel traffic, oil spills, toxic chemicals and food limits, especially salmon.

In addition, the group has only a few sexually mature males that can help repopulate.

The population stood at 97 in the 1990s, and then declined to 79 in 2001. It now stands at 89 whales.

Endangered listing requires that federal agencies make sure their actions are not likely to harm the whales. As a result, agencies that deal with chemicals and vessel traffic will have to more closely monitor how their rules impact the population.

Southern Resident killer whales were listed as “depleted” under the Marine Mammal Protection Act two years ago. That triggered a conservation plan, which was unveiled last month.

Orcas first gained widespread fame with the 1993 movie “Free Willy,” in which a boy saves a killer whale from becoming an aquarium exhibit.

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