Only 81 of These Killer Whales Are Left, but Their Chances of Survival Just Got a Big Boost

The federal government wants to greatly expand protections for the Southern Resident orcas off the West Coast.

Killer whales near the Seattle coast. (Photo: Courtesy NOAA)

Feb 25, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Emily J. Gertz is an associate editor for environment and wildlife at TakePart.

The Obama administration will nearly quadruple the protected habitat of the Southern Resident killer whale, the world’s most endangered orca.

Only 81 Southern Resident killer whales remain, but the United States National Marine Fisheries Service announced this week that it intends to protect as many as 9,000 square miles of ocean off Washington, Oregon, and Northern California to increase the orcas’ chances of survival.

NMFS stated that it will make its final decision in 2017. The two-year delay worries Miyoko Sakashita, oceans director for the Center for Biological Diversity, which petitioned the agency last year to expand the whales’ protected habitat.

“The agency is taking a really important step forward,” she said. “Time is of the essence in protecting these orcas, and we’d like to see the rule come out sooner.”

Still, Sakashita believes the move is a big win for the Southern Resident killer whales, whose population has fallen from about 100 over the past two decades. The expansion means government agencies, commercial fishing operators, and developers that must obtain federal permits for offshore activities will need to show they won’t harm the orcas.

Satellite tracking has revealed that in addition to hanging around islands off Washington state, the Southern Resident killer whales often forage farther south; rivers in Oregon and California provide inland habitat for chinook salmon and other fish that are their preferred prey.

Killer Whales in Seattle

With many of these salmon runs depleted, insufficient food has become a major factor in the whales’ decline.

Conservation groups, hydropower regulators, and federal wildlife officials have been skirmishing for years over protections for endangered salmon. The expanded orca habitat could improve conditions for the fish as well, Sakashita said.

How much the expanded protections will impact offshore energy operations depends mostly on how far offshore developers operate. Other than wave energy, which requires a federal license, any projects happening in state waters would not trigger an endangered species review. Federally managed waters begin 3.5 miles from the coast.

Shipping routes could be affected though.

Along the Atlantic Coast, the federal government has set vessel speed limits in recent years along the migration route for Northern right whales. The limits have reduced the number of right whales struck by ships, which are one of the major threats to the extremely rare whale.