Endangered orcas receive protection for their critical habitat

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On July 30, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced that it was expanding the critical habitat identified for endangered Southern Resident Killer Whales. The Declining Population Protection Zone will now include most of the coastal waters from Washington to Monterey Bay in California – previously it only included most of Washington’s inland waters. This designation encompasses the waters where we now know southerners hunt salmon from west coast rivers and other marine life.

NOAA fisheries officials said they appreciate the nearly 2,000 comments on our proposal to expand the identified critical habitat. The Endangered Species Act defines critical habitat as areas with “physical or biological characteristics essential for the conservation of the species” that may require special protection.

While the expansion of critical habitat recognizes that whales feed across much of the west coast, it is unlikely to significantly affect coastal activities, such as fishing. This is because NOAA Fisheries and the Pacific Fishery Management Council, which provide recommendations to NOAA Fisheries on fishing seasons and regulations, already consider killer whales and chinook when setting salmon fishing quotas. . NOAA Fisheries is currently seeking comments on a Council proposal to limit commercial and recreational fishing in areas as far south as Monterey Bay in California in years when salmon returns are expected to be low.

NOAA Fisheries wrote a biological advisory on how dams work on the Columbia and Snake rivers in 2020. It looked at the potential impacts on southerners and their prey, as they have long been known to feed on Columbia and Snake salmon. River. The advisory found that hatchery salmon more than compensate for any reduction in salmon numbers associated with the operation of the dams.

Recent research based on DNA signatures from west coast salmon stocks has shown killer whales prey on salmon from a variety of west coast rivers. They extend as far south as the Sacramento River and north to Canada and Alaska. Recovery measures for killer whales include:

• Release of additional hatchery fish to supplement their prey

• Extensive habitat restoration to enhance natural salmon production in the long term

The designation of critical habitat provides an additional layer of protection when a federal agency takes action that could impact whale critical habitat. It also sends the message that everyone on the West Coast has a role to play in supporting whale recovery.

“While southerners are best known in the Pacific Northwest, the entire west coast can contribute to the recovery of the whales and the salmon they depend on,” said Lynne Barre, recovery coordinator for the southerners. “No matter where they feed, they feed on a mix of salmon from different rivers on the west coast. It means the way we all use water, the way we protect habitat, the way we manage our runoff, it all makes a difference.

The newly identified critical habitat includes coastal waters 6.1-200 meters deep with three essential physical and biological characteristics:

• Water quality to support growth and development

• Prey species in sufficient quantity, quality and availability to support individual growth, reproduction and development, as well as overall population growth.

• Transit conditions to allow migration, rest and foraging

There has been a notable change from the NOAA Coastal Fisheries Critical Habitat originally proposed in November 2019. This has been amended to reduce the Excluded Buffer Zone around the Excluded Site of the Quinault Range, which is used by the Navy for various training and testing activities in support of Army readiness. The final designation also includes a biological explanation of the impact of human-induced noise on the conservation value of critical habitat identified for endangered Southern Resident Killer Whales.


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