Endangered Orca Whales Get Expanded Habitat Protections

Help has come for endangered Southern Resident orca whales along the outer coasts of Washington and Oregon— and as far south as Point Sur, California —in the form of expanded critical habitat areas.

The newly designated critical habitat areas finalized on July 30 by the National Marine Fisheries Service span 15,910 square miles of Pacific Ocean waters off the West Coast. This designation encompasses waters where we now know that the Southern Residents hunt for salmon from West Coast rivers and other marine species, NMFS officials said. While the expansion of critical habitat recognizes that the orcas forage across much of the West Coast, the new protections for the whales are unlikely to extensively affect coastal activities like fishing, according to the officials.

The environmental protection and restoration group Oceana praised the decision to expand critical habitat for the Southern Resident orcas, whose population has dropped to 75 individuals across three pods.

“The critical habitat designation will help ensure Southern Resident orcas have an ocean abundant with large salmon that is free from binding ship noise and toxic chemicals,” said Ben Enticknap, a senior scientist with Oceana. “Orca and salmon recovery go hand-in-hand, with benefits to a healthy ocean ecosystem, salmon fisheries, and communities throughout the region,” he said.

The federal fisheries officials and the Pacific Fishery Management Council, which makes recommendations to NOAA Fisheries on fishing seasons and regulations, said they had already taken into consideration the killer whales and Chinook salmon in setting salmon harvest quotas. NOAA completed a biological opinion on the operation of dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers in 2020, after concluding that hatchery salmon more than make up for any reduction in salmon numbers related to operation of the dams.

Research based on the DNA signatures of West Coast salmon stocks showed that killer whales prey on salmon from a diversity of West Coast rivers, that span as far south as the Sacramento River and north to Canada and Alaska, they said.

The one notable change from the coastal critical habitat NOAA Fisheries originally proposed in November 2019 was to reduce the excluded buffer area around excluded Quinault Range Site, which the U.S. Navy uses for various training and testing activities in support of military readiness. The final plan also includes a biological explanation of how human-induced noise impacts the conservation value of the designated critical habitat for the endangered orcas.