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.
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 from shore.
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.
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’ travels. (See 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 thought.”
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 availability.”
In a news release, Sarah Uhlemann expressed her concerns for the whales:
“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 critical habitat.
“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.”