SEATTLE— The Center for Biological Diversity filed a formal petition today with the National Marine Fisheries Service to protect more critical habitat for the endangered Southern Resident population of killer whales. If successful the proposal would extend Endangered Species Act protection to the whales’ winter foraging range off the coasts of Washington, Oregon and California.
After several drastic declines, only 81 killer whales remain in the Southern Resident population.
“These whales somewhat miraculously survived multiple threats over the years, including deliberate shootings and live capture for marine theme parks,” said Sarah Uhlemann, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “The direct killings have stopped, but we can’t expect orcas to thrive once again if we don’t protect their critical habitat.”
In response to a petition from the Center and allies, the Fisheries Service determined in 2005 that Southern Residents are in danger of extinction. Although the agency has protected portions of the population’s summer habitat in the Puget Sound, important offshore habitat areas have recently been documented.
New research (including satellite tracking data from first half of 2013, shown in this map) reveals that the whales travel extensively along the West Coast during the winter and early spring, regularly congregating near coastal rivers to feed on migrating salmon. The Center’s petition seeks to protect these areas off the coasts of Washington, Oregon and California as critical habitat.
Human activities in and near coastal waters threaten these whales by reducing salmon numbers, generating toxic pollution and increasing ocean noise, which disrupts the orcas’ ability to communicate and locate prey.
“Killer whales are important to the identity and spirit of the Pacific Northwest, and beloved by people across the country,” said Uhlemann. “If this population of amazing, extremely intelligent animals is going to survive for future generations, we need to do more to protect their most important habitat.”
Critical habitat designations prevent the federal government from undertaking or approving activities that reduce an area’s ability to support an endangered species. Studies show that species with designated critical habitat are more than twice as likely to exhibit improving population trends than those without this additional protection.