SEATTLE — In a victory for environmentalists, the federal government listed Puget Sound's killer whales as an endangered species Tuesday, giving the animals the highest protection available under the law.
The three pods of orcas that live in Puget Sound from late spring through early fall total 89 whales — down from more than 100 in the middle of the last century but up from a low of 79 in 2002. Their decline has been blamed on pollution and a drop in the population of salmon, their primary food.
"Endangered" means a species is in danger of becoming extinct. That is a higher level of protection than the government proposed last year, when it said the orcas should be listed as a "threatened" species.
"Between the time we proposed to list these animals as threatened and now, we've discovered the population is in a more delicate situation than we had assumed," said Brian Gorman, a spokesman for the National Marine Fisheries Service.
Previously, the three pods were protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which kept them from being killed or harassed.
The new listing under the Endangered Species Act will require federal agencies to make sure their activities do not harm the marine mammals and to give them better protection against pollution and a loss of salmon.
Eight environmental groups sued in 2002 over the government's refusal to list the whales under the Endangered Species Act.
The government maintained it could not do that because the Puget Sound orcas were not biologically distinct from other orcas. The environmental groups argued that the Puget Sound orcas have a distinctive call and a different diet and features from other orcas, do not mate outside their family structure, and show an attachment to one geographic region.
A federal judge ordered the fisheries service to reconsider.
Patti Goldman, an attorney with Earthjustice in Seattle, said endangered status might help environmentalists win more money from the government to protect the orcas.
"This will give us the will and the tools to take the actions that will allow them to survive," Goldman said.
Kathy Fletcher of the environmental group People for Puget Sound said the new listing could also help speed the cleanup of contamination in the sound.