Because Southern Resident killer whales spend so much time
foraging in the Pacific Ocean, the coastal waters from Washington
to Northern California should be designated for special protection,
according to the Center for Biological Diversity.
Southern Resident killer whales
// NOAA photo
The environmental group listed research conducted by the
National Marine Fisheries Service — including ongoing
satellite-tracking studies — in a new petition to the agency. The
“Petition to Revise the Critical Habitat Designation …” (PDF 340
kb) calls for the West Coast to be designated as critical
habitat from Cape Flattery in Washington to Point Reyes in
California. The protected zone would extend out nearly 50 miles
Environmental activists have long argued that the whales depend
on more than the San Juan Islands, Puget Sound and the Strait of
Juan de Fuca for their survival. Those inland areas, currently
designated as critical habitat, are where the whales normally spend
most of the summer months. But when winter comes around, where the
whales go has been a relative mystery until recent years.
Map by Curt Bradley / Center for
An intensive research program has pointed to the conclusion that
all three pods venture into Pacific Ocean, and K and L pods travel
far down the coast. Research methods include a coastal network of
people watching for whales, passive recorders to pick up sounds
from the orcas, and work from large and small research vessels.
Satellite tracking has allowed researchers to map the whales’
Water Ways, Jan. 14.) In addition, forage activity has been
observed where rivers drain into the ocean, and many researchers
believe that the Columbia River may be especially important.
In addition to the proposal to expand critical habitat, the
petition calls for NMFS to include man-made noise among the
characteristics getting special attention. The petition states:
“Moreover, in revising the critical habitat designation for
Southern Resident killer whales, NMFS must also preserve waters in
which anthropogenic noise does not exceed levels that inhibit
communication, disrupt foraging activities or result in hearing
loss or habitat abandonment.
“A variety of human activities, including shipping operations,
have the potential to impair these functions by generating
additional ocean noise, resulting in the acoustic degradation of
killer whale habitat.
“Global warming and increasing ocean acidification, both
products of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, also contribute
to rising levels of ambient noise.”
Characteristics already considered in protecting the orcas’
critical habitat include water quality, prey quality and abundance,
and adequate room to move, rest and forage.
I thought it was interesting that the Center for Biological
Diversity would petition the agency to expand critical habitat for
the Southern Residents at a time when federal researchers are
building a pretty strong case to do that on their own.
Sarah Uhlemann, a senior attorney at the center, told me that
she sees the petition as supportive of those research efforts,
which seem to be building toward a legal and policy shift:
“They have been putting a lot of funding into that research, and
we’re thrilled about that. The agency has been pretty clear that it
does intend to designate critical habitat in the winter range.
“This petition puts them on a time frame. They have 90 days to
decide if the petition may be warranted… Within a year, they must
inform the public about what their plans are.
“This is supportive of what the agency already has in mind. It
just gives them a little kick to move forward faster.”
The Endangered Species Act defines critical habitat as “the
specific areas within the geographical area occupied by the species
… on which are found those physical or biological features …
essential to the conservation of the species and … which may
require special management considerations or protection.”
Within critical habitat, federal agencies are required to focus
on features important to the survival of the species.
The petition mentions a recent study suggesting that Southern
Residents may require consistent availability of chinook salmon,
rather than “high numbers of fish that are only available for a
short period of time.” If those findings hold up, coastal foraging
may be critical to the population’s survival, the petition says,
citing work by Katherine Ayres of the University of Washington’s
Center for Conservation Biology.
The Ayres study concludes that the whales become “somewhat
food-limited during the course of the summer” and, therefore, “the
early spring period when the whales are typically in coastal waters
might be a more important foraging time than was previously
It could be pointed out that the Southern Residents spent little
time in Puget Sound this year, and researchers speculate that they
may have been finding better prospects for food among the more
abundant runs of chinook returning to the Columbia River.
While J and K pods have have begun to rebound in population, L
pod has declined to historic lows, totaling only 36 individuals
last fall. Where there is uncertainty, the petition calls on NMFS
to act on the side of protection. The petition states:
“Without proper oversight, human activities will continue to
degrade this region, compromising the continued existence of
habitat characteristics required for the population’s survival and
recovery. As NMFS is aware, anthropogenic pressures have already
contributed to the decline of salmon stocks throughout the
northwestern United States.
“Nutritional stress resulting from low Chinook abundance may act
synergistically with the immunosuppressive effects of toxic
contaminants, present in prey species from both coastal and inland
marine waters, causing Southern Residents to experience a variety
of adverse health effects, including increased mortality. The
population may be unable to adapt to further reductions in prey
news release, Sarah Uhlemann expressed her concerns for the
“These whales somewhat miraculously survived multiple threats
over the years, including deliberate shootings and live capture for
marine theme parks. The direct killings have stopped, but we can’t
expect orcas to thrive once again if we don’t protect their
“Killer whales are important to the identity and spirit of the
Pacific Northwest and beloved by people across the country. 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.”
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