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Oceans: More love for West Coast orcas?

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Orcas along the coast of the Pacific Northwest may get more protected habitat. Photo courtesy NOAA.

Feds to consider expanded habitat protections for endangered resident population of killer whales

By Summit Voice

FRISCO — Federal biologists will take another look at an endangered population of killer whales off the West Coast to determine whether they need more critical habitat.

The southern resident population of the marine mammals, based in Puget Sound, range along the Pacific Coast. A critical habitat expansion would protect winter foraging range off the coasts of Washington, Oregon and California, according to the Center for Biological Diversity, which spurred the review with a formal petition.

“Despite nearly a decade of federal protection, the Puget Sound’s orca population remains perilously small, hovering around only 80 animals,” said Sarah Uhlemann, senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “This proposal is an important step toward recovery and will help the whales stave off extinction.”

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New habitat protection for killer whales would extend nearly all the way to San Francisco.

The National Marine Fisheries Service listed Southern Residents as endangered in 2005, following a legal petition from the Center and allies. Although the agency has already protected portions of the population’s summer habitat in Puget Sound, important offshore areas were identified only recently.

New research, including the satellite tracking data shown in this map, demonstrates that the orcas travel extensively along the West Coast during the winter and early spring, regularly congregating near coastal rivers to feed on migrating salmon. Human activities in 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 one of the Pacific Northwest’s most iconic animals,” said Uhlemann. “But now we’re learning other parts of the Pacific Coast must also do their part to preserve these amazing animals. Protecting all of the orcas’ essential habitat will help to maintain the coastal environment for future generations.”

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 as those without this additional protection.

Today’s proposal will be open to public comment for 60 days, and the Fisheries Service will conduct additional scientific and economic studies of the expansion’s impact. The agency is required to determine whether the proposed expansion is warranted by Jan. 16, 2015.

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