In good news for Puget Sound’s beloved orcas, whose future survival is in question, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) announced it will consider expanding critical habitat for them along the West Coast.
These orcas, known as the Southern Resident population, include three distinct pods (J, K and L pods) who live in Puget Sound, the Strait of Georgia and the Strait of Juan de Fuca during the summer months and migrate to the open ocean in the winter.
Conservationists have been worried about their future for some time now. According to the NMFS, their numbers were once around 200 in the late 1800s, but their population fell an estimated 30 percent to about 67 whales by 1971, due largely to live captures for public display. By 2003, their population had only increased to 83 whales. As of September 2013, there were only 81 left.
Even though they were protected as a distinct population segment under the Endangered Species Act in 2005, their numbers haven’t grown since and they continue to face a variety of threats ranging from noise pollution, climate change and contaminants in the water to vulnerability to oil spills and collisions with ships. Concerns have also been raised about their access to Chinook salmon, a staple food source, which have drastically declined.
In an effort to protect these orcas and ensure their future survival, the Center for Biological Diversity filed a petition with the NMFS in January asking the agency to expand protected areas along the West Coast.
“Despite nearly a decade of federal protection, the Puget Sound’s orca population remains perilously small, hovering around only 80 animals,” said Sarah Uhlemann, senior attorney at the Center. “This proposal is an important step toward recovery and will help the whales stave off extinction.”
Some areas off of Washington where they live in the summer are currently covered, but their existing critical habitat is just a small fraction of the range they travel along the coast.
Part of the problem before was that there wasn’t much information about where they traveled during the winter, but the Center’s petition argues that the agency knows now and needs to update critical habitat to include coastal waters off of Washington, Oregon and California where they forage and travel during the winter. Specifically, new protected habitat under the proposal would extend from Cape Flattery, Wash., to Point Reyes, Calif.
“Killer whales are one of the Pacific Northwest’s most iconic animals,” said Uhlemann. “But now we’re learning other parts of the Pacific Coast must also do their part to preserve these amazing animals. Protecting all of the orcas’ essential habitat will help to maintain the coastal environment for future generations.”
If the NMFS moves ahead and expands critical habitat for the Southern Residents, the agency will be tasked with limiting activities that could harm orcas and areas that are vital for their survival. According to the petition, it will also help focus conservation and recovery efforts in important areas.
The proposal is now open for a 60-day public comment period, while the NMFS conducts additional studies.
Please take a minute to speak up for the Southern Residents and the future of health of our coastal ecosystems by submitting a comment in support of expanding protected habitat.
Photo credit: Thinkstock
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