New studies map important coastal habitat
By Summit Voice
FRISCO — Ocean conservation advocates say the latest research shows a need to protect more habitat for orcas along the west coast.
Based in part on tracking studies showing orca movements, the Center for Biological Diversity last week petitioned the National Marine Fisheries Service to protect the whales’ winter foraging range off the coasts of Washington, Oregon and California. The petition points out that only 81 killer whales remain in the Southern Resident population.
“These whales somewhat miraculously survived multiple threats over the years, including deliberate shootings and live capture for marine theme parks,” said Sarah Uhlemann, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “The direct killings have stopped, but we can’t expect orcas to thrive once again if we don’t protect their critical habitat.”
The federal government has protected portions of the orcas’ summer habitat in Puget Sound, but the new data shows that 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 seeks to protect these areas off the coasts of Washington, Oregon and California as critical habitat.
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.
“Killer whales are important to the identity and spirit of the Pacific Northwest, and beloved by people across the country,” said Uhlemann. “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.”
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 exhibit improving population trends than those without this additional protection.