The Last 74 Critically Endangered Southern Resident Orcas Receive New Federal Protection For 15,910 Square Miles Of West Coast Habitat

Responding to legal pressure from the Center for Biological Diversity, the federal government finalized a new rule late last week that expands critical habitat protection along the West Coast of the United States for critically endangered Southern Resident orcas. The population of orcas stands at only 74 individuals remaining in the wild.

The National Marine Fisheries Service designated 15,910 square miles of new critical habitat, expanding current protections in Washington’s Salish Sea along the coasts of Washington, Oregon, and California, to Point Sur.

The final rule, which is more protective than the one suggested in September of 2019, follows an April of 2019 court-ordered agreement achieved after the Center sued the Trump administration in 2018 for failing to issue habitat protections required by the Endangered Species Act.

“These critically endangered orcas are finally getting the federal habitat protections they desperately need,” Julie Teel Simmonds, an attorney at the Center, said in a statement. “This long-overdue habitat rule will help save these extraordinary animals and their prey from pollution, noise, harassment, and habitat degradation.”

The expanded critical habitat covers important foraging areas, river mouths, and migratory pathways along the Pacific Coast from the Canadian border to Big Sur, California. Added to the current habitat protections in Washington’s inland waters, the total designation encompasses more than 18,000 square miles of marine habitat.

While these orcas spend much of the summer in Puget Sound and the Salish Sea,which have been areas protected as critical habitat since 2006, they travel extensively along the West Coast during the winter and early spring, congregating near coastal rivers to rest and feed on migrating salmon.

The Center petitioned in 2014 to better protect areas off the coasts of Washington, Oregon, and California. The Endangered Species Act prohibits federal agencies from authorizing activities that will destroy or harm a listed species’ critical habitat. Animals with federally protected critical habitat are more than twice as likely to be recovering as species without it, a Center study found.

The Center has other pending lawsuits against the federal government to protect Southern Resident killer whales. A lawsuit filed in 2019 seeks an updated analysis of how Pacific salmon fishing is harming the orcas, as well as management measures to reduce that harm. One filed in 2021 seeks an analysis of noise pollution, contaminants, and disturbance in the orcas’ Salish Sea habitat from dredging Seattle Harbor to allow larger container ships.

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