(CN) – Wildlife conservationists sued federal ocean management agencies Monday in an effort to spur protections for endangered killer whales whose foraging habits off the Pacific Northwest coast have been disrupted by noise from ships and other vessels.
Staggering population decline of the iconic black and while orca has led to only 73 Southern Resident killer whales remaining in the world, the fewest in nearly 40 years.
The major threats the orcas face are low numbers of Chinook salmon for their diets, environmental contaminants and disruption of feeding areas in the Salish Sea by vessel noise.
To find prey, the highly intelligent whales use sound and echolocation, which can become masked by vessel noise, leading to death by starvation in whales that have to travel longer distances to forage.
In a federal lawsuit filed Monday, the Center for Biological Diversity and Orca Relief Citizens’ Alliance accuse the federal agencies overseeing the orcas’ habitats of failing to speedily establish a whale protection zone.
The groups petitioned the National Marine Fisheries Service in 2016 to set up a 12-mile area west of the San Juan Islands as a protected zone and to prohibit motorized vessels from passing through the congregation area between August and September each year.
“Almost three years have passed since plaintiffs submitted the whale protection zone petition, without any final response from the Fisheries Service,” the groups say in the complaint, adding the delay in agency rule-making violates the Administrative Procedure Act.
The groups claim the agency has a duty to establish protections for the killer whales under the Endangered Species Act and Marine Mammal Protection Act.
They seek a court order forcing the agency to set a deadline to establish a protection zone for the whales, which were listed as endangered in 2005.
The agency, its West Coast Regional Administrator Barry Thom and U.S. Department of Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross are named defendants in the complaint, which was filed in the Western District of Washington.
A spokesperson for the respective agencies did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
In 2009, the Fisheries Service proposed setting up a “no-go” zone west of the San Juan Islands to protect the orcas but then decided two years later to keep collecting data for future rule-making.
“It has been nearly 10 years since the Fisheries Service began collecting information and considering such a rulemaking,” the complaint says. “In the meantime, the population of Southern Resident killer whales has declined from 85 animals in 2009 to a mere 73 animals today.”