Finally—some positive news for ocean life. Thanks to a petition by the Center for Biological Diversity, endangered “Southern Resident” killer whales may have expanded habitat protection in a few years, according to a National Marine Fisheries Services announcement. Currently, the Southern Resident population hovers at only 81 killer whales.
“Killer whales are at a crossroads, and protecting their foraging habitat along the West Coast will be essential to their recovery,” said Miyoko Sakashita, the Center’s oceans director. A determination that the Southern Residents were in danger of extinction back in 2005 resulted in protection of 2,500 square miles of their Puget Sound summer habitat, but since that time, an additional 9,000 square miles of important offshore habitat areas have been documented.
The whales travel extensively along the West Coast during the winter and early spring, regularly congregating near coastal rivers to feed on migrating salmon. The Center’s petition sought to protect these areas off the coasts of Washington, Oregon and California as critical habitat. “Killer whales need new habitat protections to prevent ocean pollution and noise that can interfere with their ability to locate prey. While the Fisheries Service’s announcement is an important step forward, time is of the essence, and those new habitat protections are needed now,” said Sakashita.
Human activities in and near coastal waters threaten these whales by reducing salmon numbers, generating toxic pollution and increasing ocean noise, which disrupts the orcas’ ability to communicate and locate prey.
Critical habitat designations prevent the federal government from undertaking or approving activities that reduce an area’s ability to support an endangered species. Studies show that species with designated critical habitat are more than twice as likely to be recovering as those without it.