updated 1/27/2008 4:00:49 PM ET 2008-01-27T21:00:49

The National Marine Fisheries Service on Thursday released its recovery plan for Puget Sound's threatened killer whales, aimed at lessening the threats posed to the orcas by pollution, vessel traffic and decreased availability of food.

The goal is to enable the "southern resident" population of orcas to be taken off the endangered species list by helping their numbers grow by an average of 2.3 percent per year for the next 28 years. If the population increases for 14 years, the whales could be listed as threatened, a less severe category under the federal Endangered Species Act.

There are 88 orcas in the southern population today.

The federal agency issued its final recovery plan for the whales after taking public comment on a draft plan issued in November 2006. At that time, the fisheries service declared much of Washington's inland marine waters as critical habitat for the orcas. The area covers about 2,500 square miles, including the waters around the San Juan Islands, the Strait of Juan de Fuca and all of Puget Sound.

The plan calls for:

  • Supporting salmon restoration efforts already under way.
  • Cleaning up contaminated sites in Puget Sound and reducing pollution in the region.
  • Evaluating and improving guidelines for vessel traffic in and around protected areas, and minimizing underwater sound.
  • Preventing oil spills and improving response plans when spills occur.
  • Improving public education about how to help save the whales.
  • Improving responses to sick or stranded orcas.
  • Better coordination between U.S., Canadian and agencies from West Coast states.
  • Continuing research to improve conservation efforts.

Unique in their diet, language and genetic makeup, southern residents were listed as endangered in late 2005.

Once believed to have numbered 140 or more in the last century, orcas have suffered several periods of major population decline since the 1960s, when the whales were caught for aquariums. The population rebounded to 97 in the 1990s, then declined to 79 in 2001.

Killer whales are actually the world's largest variety of dolphin and can reach close to 30 feet and weigh more than 15,000 pounds at maturity.

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