Southern Resident orca critical habitat - where are we now?

In 2014, WDC supported a petition by our colleagues at the Center for Biological Diversity asking the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to expand critical habitat for the endangered Southern Resident orca community.  Unfortunately, four years later, we’re still waiting for NMFS to take action to protect more of the Southern Residents’ home.  

what is critical habitat?
what is critical habitat?

The summer and fall range of the Southern Resident community was designated as critical habitat shortly after they were listed as an endangered species in 2005.   At that time, NMFS did not include the coastal waters of Washington, Oregon, and California because they were unsure if those areas included important features critical to the survival of the orcas.  However, after over a decade of dedicated research, we now know that these coastal waters are vital for the survival of the Southern Residents in the late fall, winter, and early spring.

Sadly, we have also learned that the top threats to their recovery – prey depletion, toxic contamination, acoustic and physical disturbance – impact the orcas in these coastal waters as well.  The orcas, particularly K and L pods, spend over half their time on the outer coast, foraging off the mouths of major rivers and continuing to target salmon.  Declining salmon runs, toxic pollution like the “California signature” of DDT, and increasing human-made noise in the ocean need to be addressed in their coastal habitat as well if the Southern Residents are to survive and thrive.

Based on these research findings, NMFS accepted a petition to expand designated critical habitat to include these coastal waters and in February of 2015 announced the agency would begin the process to revise critical habitat.  The petition also requested that NMFS consider adding sound as a feature essential to their survival, and therefore protected under current and future critical habitat.  Orcas, like all whales, are acoustic beings that rely on sound to navigate, find prey, and communicate. 

Southern Resident orca
young Southern Resident orca L121 (Windsong) chases a salmon

With increasing concern about planned projects like Canada’s Kinder Morgan Pipeline and the U.S.’s proposed offshore drilling plan, protecting the coastal home of the Southern Residents is more important now than ever.  The noise caused by these potential developments makes it more difficult for the orcas to forage for their already-scarce food, and the added risk of oil spill would be catastrophic for the small population.

Yet, despite a coalition of organizations asking NMFS to expedite the expansion of critical habitat, the agency delayed action and set a timeline of releasing a proposal in 2017.  Now, already a few months into 2018, we are still waiting on that proposal.  We’ve been through this process before with North Atlantic right whales – it took WDC and our partners more than 5 years and two lawsuits to get NMFS to expand critical habitat for right whales.  We didn’t give up and we were ultimately successful, and we are once again prepared to do what it takes to ensure that the Southern Resident orcas’ entire home is protected as well.  With the current chaotic situation in Washington D.C. and uncertainty within the agencies, we are making sure the Southern Residents are not forgotten and that a critical habitat expansion continues to progress.

You can help us remind NMFS that they committed to more protection for the home of this unique orca community.  Sign our letter to NMFS here. 


Endangered species needs to be protected in their natural habitats. Prey depletion is a major cause of worry, which conservationists needs to take up with governments. We are doing whatever is possible from our end in Britain. Our website is

Two seasonal concentration areas for resident killer whales off northeastern and southeastern Vancouver Island have been well documented and meet the requirements for designation as critical habitat under SARA. Critical habitat (Figures 4 and 5) is described by coordinates for each population (see Appendix B), and includes the identified attributes of the availability of the preferred prey (specifically Chinook and Chum salmon) and the lack of acoustic disturbance or chemical contamination which would prevent the area from being used by the species for foraging, socialising, mating, resting, and in the case of the northern residents, beach rubbing."

Both of these areas are characterized by narrow channels with strong currents, and appear to be geographical 'funnels' that tend to concentrate migrating salmon bound for the Fraser River, which has the largest salmon production in the region (Northcote and Larkin 1989), and other smaller river systems flowing into the Strait of Georgia and Puget Sound. Rational for the designation of critical habitat and a general description of the habitat and its features is presented in Section 3.1.1 and 3.1.2 for northern and southern residents respectively.

There are likely other areas that are important for killer whales at various times, but these have not yet been studied in sufficient detail to be identified with confidence. Measures to identify and effectively protect other critical habitat areas will be described in the action plan that follows this recovery strategy.