(CN) – Endangered orca living off the coast of Seattle could soon have more protected habitat, thanks to a federal proposal to add a 15,000-square-mile slice of ocean to the area designated for them under the Endangered Species Act.
Southern Resident killer whales are an endangered population of orca living in the Pacific Northwest. Their numbers have declined to a historical low of 73 whales living in three extended families called pods.
The whales face three major problems: the decline of their main prey, Chinook salmon, which are themselves endangered; toxic pollution in the waters where they swim and the food they eat; and the cacophony of noise from ship traffic in their main territory.
The new rule would aim to reduce underwater noise to that interferes with their ability to communicate with each other and find prey using echolocation, prevent their hearing loss, and make sure they are not driven from their prime habitat. Last summer, the whales were rarely within their usual summer territory.
Puget Sound and the Strait of Juan de Fuca – the waterway that separates Canada from northwestern Washington – are major shipping arteries between ports in Canada and Seattle and those in Asia. Those areas were protected in 2006 – one year after Southern Resident killer whales were listed as endangered.
Under the new rule, similar protections would exist in a slice of ocean along the West Coast from the Canadian border south to Point Sur, California. The section of ocean would be protected between depths of six and 200 meters.
However, rules governing the new critical habitat may not prevent hearing loss and other harm from Navy sonar testing. The U.S. Navy announced in April that it plans a major increase in new testing along the Washington state coast. And the proposed rule specifically excludes “sites owned or controlled by the Department of Defense” from its expansion of critical habitat – including the Quinault Range Site.
The proposal for the rule, announced Wednesday by the National Marine Fisheries Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, invites public comment specifically on the rule’s potential impacts on the economy and national security. Under new rules adopted by the Trump administration, the government is now allowed to consider the economic impacts of an endangered species listing.
“We solicit comments from the public on all aspects of the proposal, including information on the economic, national security, and other relevant impacts of the proposed revision to the critical habitat designation,” the proposed rule states.
The agencies announced in 2014 that there was reason to expand the whales’ critical habitat. But the process of designating it languished until a lawsuit from the Center for Biological Diversity spurred its completion.
“We’re happy these endangered orcas are finally getting the habitat protection they desperately need,” said Julie Teel Simmonds, an attorney at the center. “Expanding orcas’ habitat protection will help save these extraordinary animals and their prey from pollution, harassment and habitat degradation. Orcas are in crisis, and we need quick, bold actions to ensure their survival.”
The government is also currently assessing whether fishing for salmon in the ocean is reducing the amount of food available for Southern Residents. Under that process, a working group of federal, state and tribal management agencies will present their recommendation in November to the Pacific Fisheries Management Council, the group that sets limits on fishing in the Pacific Ocean each year.
The council will consider that recommendation when setting fishing limits for 2020. Though the proposed protected habitat overlaps with ocean fishing areas, officials involved say the two processes are separate.