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Group Seeks To Protect Alaska Whales
Science - Reuters
Nov 13, 2002
By Yereth Rosen

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (Reuters) - A group of Alaskan whales that has more than halved to just nine members since the Exxon Valdez oil spill more than a decade ago needs new protection, eight conservation organizations said in a petition submitted on Wednesday to the federal government.

The groups asked the National Marine Fisheries Service to assign a "depleted" designation to the so-called "AT1 group," or pod, of orcas, a transient population that ranges from Prince William Sound to Kenai Fjords National Park.

That classification, allowed under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, would afford special protection and give scientists an opportunity to study why the whales are disappearing, said Pat Lavin, Prince William Sound project manager for the National Wildlife Federation, one of the petitioning groups.

The AT1 group had 22 members in 1989, the year of the Exxon Valdez spill. Research indicates that only nine whales remain today, Lavin said.

A depleted designation would allow the Prince William Sound pod to be managed separately from the larger population of transient orcas that range from California to Alaska's Aleutian Islands, Lavin said.

"This is definitely a genetically and behaviorally distinct group of whales," he said.

Transient orcas generally range over larger distances than do >resident orcas, but that is not the case for Prince William Sound's transient orcas, he said.

Those whales roam through areas that were coated 13 years ago by spilled Exxon crude oil. That disaster -- the worst spill from a tanker in U.S. waters -- may be contributing to the decline, he said.

"Some of the whales were seen swimming around the Exxon Valdez as it was grounded and spilling oil, and were never seen again," Lavin said.

Environmental activists suspect that the whales are suffering from more widespread and chronic pollution.

Tissues from one member of the pod, a whale that was stranded and died in the summer of 2000, were found to contain extremely high levels of pesticides and toxic chemicals, they said.