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5 Year Fight for Critical Habitat for Southern Resident orcas

Orcas off the Olympic Coast
Orcas off the Olympic Coast of Washington (National Marine Sanctuaries)

Expanding critical habitat for Southern Resident orcas was one of the first things I started working on when I joined WDC as the Jessica Rekos Fellow for Orca Conservation more than five years ago.  And now, over five years later – it’s here!  Last week, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) released the proposed rule that expands protection through the entire home of these endangered orcas.  This feels like a culmination of years of effort by many people working on Southern Resident recovery, but even as I read through the proposal – and all the new science that comes with it (!) – I know that this is one step on a long journey to saving the Southern Resident orcas.

Proposed versus Actual Critical Habitat - Seattle Times
Proposed versus Actual Critical Habitat - Seattle Times

A brief history of critical habitat:

  • 2005: Southern Resident orcas listed as endangered
  • 2006: NMFS designated critical habitat in historic summer range in the Salish Sea (inland waters between WA state and BC)
  • That designation did not include their coastal range because there was not enough information at that time
  • 2014: After a decade of dedicated research on how the orcas use coastal habitat, the Center for Biological Diversity petitioned NMFS to revise critical habitat and include the coastal range
  • 2019: NMFS releases proposal to expand designated Southern Resident orca critical habitat to include an additional 15,626 square miles on the coast of WA/OR/CA

My first official task for WDC was to review all of the historical information and provide input to NMFS supporting the petition and asking the federal agency to expand critical habitat for the Southern Residents.  In my excitement to learn about the Southern Residents and do a good job on my first comment letter, I went WAY overboard in my review of information – but no one can say it wasn’t a thorough argument!

Luckily, NMFS agreed with WDC and the many other commenters from conservation groups and the public, and decided that the expansion was needed.  However, they delayed the action until 2017, and our frustration grew as we watched that deadline pass and the Southern Resident population continue to decline.

Now, five years later and after many conversations, comments, and campaigns to expedite the process, nearly 106,000 signatures from supporters (submitted with our partners at the Center for Biological Diversity and NRDC), and one lawsuit, the proposed rule to protect the coastal habitat of the Southern Resident orcas is finally out.  I’ll emphasize the “proposed” part of that rule – it’s not final yet!  There is another step in the process, but an important one that allows WDC and others to review the rule and make sure it’s as strong as the orcas need for their survival and recovery, and allows you, the people who are focused on the Southern Residents and their recovery, to have your voices heard.

Critical habitat quick read
The good:

  • Adds 15,626 square miles to current critical habitat, making their protected area seven times bigger!
  • Extends farther south than expected, to Point Sur, California
  • Provides new information on the orcas’ winter diet and foraging hotspots, including the mouth of the Columbia River

The not-so-good:

  • A large Naval testing area off the coast of Washington is exempted
  • Does not include sound as an essential feature of critical habitat
proposed critical habitat expansion
Proposed expansion of critical habitat for Southern Resident orcas (NMFS)

Ensuring the Southern Residents have protection throughout their range has been, unfortunately, the perfect example of how frustrating policy change can sometimes be, how it can be a long-term process requiring years of work and attention, and how there are no quick fixes for whale and dolphin recovery.  It’s a lesson we know well, thanks to a very similar struggle with expanding critical habitat for North Atlantic right whales, which took more than 5 years and two separate lawsuits!

We were ultimately successful in the fight to protect more habitat for right whales, and I have every confidence we will be successful for Southern Resident orcas as well, thanks to the determination and dedication of our supporters.  You have stayed with us throughout this endeavor, signing petitions, sending emails, and speaking up for Southern Resident orcas.  We’re diving into reviewing this proposed rule now, and soon we’ll be asking for your help on this issue one more time.  We need to show NMFS the strong support for making sure the orcas have the protections they need, throughout their range, to survive and thrive.

Sometimes policy can feel like two steps forward and one step back, and we celebrate the milestones and victories when we can.  There are still many steps to take for Southern Resident orca recovery, but this is a big leap forward in protecting their home, and a good reason to celebrate today!

Critical Habitat

Need a refresher on critical habitat?  Check out these references:

Mayday Monday

Revisit our "Mayday Monday" campaign, covering all things about Southern Resident orcas and their home.

What is Critical Habitat?

What exactly is critical habitat, and how does it help endangered species?