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Biden administration moves to expand protection for endangered killer whale

The southern resident killer whale earned a reprieve Friday from the Biden administration which expanded its critical habitat by 15,000 square miles along its migratory paths and winter foraging grounds.

(CN) — The Biden administration introduced new protections Friday for a species of endangered Orcas that patrol the waters off the West Coast after a campaign by wildlife advocates. 

The National Marine Fisheries Service granted expanded habitat protections to southern resident killer whales, the smallest of four resident populations within the northeastern part of the Northern Pacific Ocean and the only of the four to be listed as endangered.

The service will add approximately 15,000 square miles between the ocean west of the border with Canada to the North down to Point Sur in Monterey, California.

“These critically endangered orcas are finally getting the federal habitat protections they desperately need,” said Julie Teel Simmonds, attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “This long-overdue habitat rule will help save these extraordinary animals and their prey from pollution, noise, harassment and habitat degradation.”

The service said the updates were necessary after it reviewed the updated science and analyzed how and where the animals forage and how they migrate during different seasons. Initially, the protections centered on the summer foraging grounds of the southern resident killer whale, which is concentrated in the Salish Sea and the Puget Sound, near Seattle. Those protections were secured in 2006. 

But further analysis showed the whales migrate south as far as Big Sur and the Center petitioned the fisheries service to update the habitat protections that restrict certain commercial operations from occurring in proximity to the animals. 

The new protections are concentrated along river mouths and other migratory channels the animal uses as it migrates north to south according to seasonal changes. All told, the fisheries service has set aside 18,000 square miles for the Orca. 

The resident group is only one clan, consisting of three pods. The oldest living Orca, who was presumed to be 105 years old at the time of her death, came from one of the three pods in the resident population. Her name was Granny and she died in October 2016. 

The Center sued the fisheries service in 2018, during the Trump administration, saying the agency had failed to provide the critical habitat protections mandated by the law. The newly published rule is the result of a court-negotiated settlement in 2019. 

The Center has other lawsuits related to the endangered species including one filed this year that demands the fisheries service update the science regarding how noise from large container ships and the dredging of the Seattle harbor could be impacting the species. 

Recent studies have shown whales are particularly susceptible to noise pollution due to their sensitive hearing. 

Another lawsuit, filed in 2019, asks the agency to explore the science of how the Pacific salmon fishing industry in the Salish Sea could be affecting the species of Orca. Both suits are pending. 

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