Critical habitat for killer whales extends south along the California coast

August 5, 2021

A group of killer whales, also known as orcas. NOAA photo.

The Biden Administration has expanded critical habitat designations for the critically endangered Southern Resident Killer Whale population to cover nearly 16,000 square miles of Pacific waters from southern Washington to Point Sur, California .

Whales currently have protected critical habitat in inland waters of Washington state, where the southern killer whale population of just 75 animals is heavily dependent on chinook salmon – stocks that are themselves threatened by loss of life. habitat and pollution in the region.

A final order from the NMFS, published in the Federal August 2 Register now and effective September 1, maintains the Puget Sound protected area and extends the critical habitat designation to the 200-meter (656-foot) seabed contour.

“This review is based on more than a decade of research that has improved our knowledge of the geographic range, diet and habitat requirements of Southern Resident Killer Whales, including their movements along the coast. west, “according to an NMFS announcement.

The new area covers 15,910 square miles off Washington, Oregon and California, from the United States’ international border with Canada south to Point Sur. One exception is Navy activities in the National Marine Sanctuary of the Olympic Coast, where the NMFS maintains the exclusion of the site from the Quinault range, but with modifications to maintain a buffer zone of more than 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) around the range area.

Over a long period of public comment, the agency has heard from groups and individuals with a wide range of positions – ranging from claims that the rule does not do enough to protect whales, to concerns that the designation habitat would impose new burdens on the marine and fishing industries.

But in its own Register now responses, the NMFS says it does not expect the habitat designation to force management changes.

“The designation of critical habitat does not establish a refuge or sanctuary for the species or automatically close areas to specific activities, but rather guides federal agencies to consult with the NMFS if their actions may affect the habitat. essential, “wrote agency officials. “In the case of commercial fisheries… we consider it unlikely that the identification of critical habitat would result in fisheries management actions different from those that would already be implemented for the protection of Southern Resident Killer Whales, endangered salmon and other listed species. “

The rule arose out of a 2014 petition to the NMFS by the Center for Biological Diversity requesting revisions to the designation of critical habitat to include “inhabited marine waters along the west coast of the United States that constitute critical feeding and wintering areas ”, particularly the area between Cape Flattery, Washington, and Point Reyes, California, extending from the coast to a distance of 47.2 mi (76 km) offshore.

The NMFS undertook a study for a new rule, and in August 2018, the Center for Biological Diversity sued the agency in federal court to expedite rule-making and set a deadline. An April 2019 rulebook required the NMFS to complete and submit a rule proposal later in the year.

“This decision to expand critical habitat is a big step forward in the recovery of these iconic killer whales,” said Ben Enticknap, senior scientist at environmental group Oceana. “We have a responsibility to protect and recover the Southern Resident Killer Whales and this announcement will help ensure that happens. “

The expanded expansion of critical habitat for Southern Resident Killer Whales covers nearly 16,000 square miles from the southern Pacific to Point Sur, California. NOAA chart.


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