Did you know that the Southern Resident orcas spend half the year off the West Coast? This critically endangered population depends on salmon from large river systems outside the Salish Sea, as far south as the Columbia River, and even the Sacramento River in California.
Yet this area where they forage and travel is not protected as critical habitat. Critical habitat is defined as specific geographic areas that contain features essential to the conservation of an endangered or threatened species and that may require special management and protection.
Right now, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) just proposed expanding orca critical habitat to include over 15,500 square miles of coastal waters while maintaining the whales’ currently-designated critical habitat in inland waters of Washington.
Vessel noise and disturbance, declining prey, and toxic contaminants all contribute to the risk of extinction. Animals with critical habitat protections are twice as likely to be on track for recovery as those without. Given that there are only 73 of these highly intelligent orcas left, there is no time to lose. They need critical habitat protections in coastal marine areas now.
The population’s decline underscores the need for urgent, enforceable protections of orca coastal habitat. To save whales, we need to protect their ocean habitat. This proposal by the NMFS to expand critical habitat designation is so important. These habitat protections could shield orcas from any impacts by increasing federal regulatory review, analysis, and consultation of activities and projects conducted in these areas.
The final rule identifies three essential habitat features: water quality, sufficient prey, and passage conditions. Healthy waters not only benefit salmon and orcas, but also support healthy communities that rely on clean water.
Thank you for your continued support for orca survival and recovery.