U.S. Adds 16,000 Square Miles To Protect Orcas

Graphic by Annabel Driussi for ODP

by Natasha Lasky, ODP Staff Writer

On Friday, endangered killer whales received new habitat protections from the federal government. As ABC News reported,

The National Marine Fisheries Service finalized rules to expand the Southern Resident orca’s critical habitat from the Canadian border down to Point Sur, California, adding 15,910 square miles (41,207 square kilometers) of foraging areas, river mouths and migratory pathways.

Why This Matters: These protections have been a long time coming. The Center for Biological Diversity sued the Trump administration in 2018 for failing to issue habitat protections required by the Endangered Species Act, and in that time, the population of Southern Residents orcas fell to just 75 orcas, its lowest number since the 1970s.

These critically endangered orcas are finally getting the federal habitat protections they desperately need,” Julie Teel Simmonds, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, told the Associated Press.

“Resident” killer whales are fish eaters found along the coasts on both sides of the North Pacific. Southern Residents are the smallest of the ‘resident’ populations, are found mostly off British Columbia, Washington and Oregon, but also travel to forage widely along the outer coast. Their preferred food is Chinook salmon, thus conservation groups are also urging the increased protection of salmon in order to protect the orcas’ food source.

Is There More To Be Done?

While environmentalists have applauded these recent protections, they’ve suggested that more can be done to help the orca population recover — namely, instating habitat protections for salmon.

Chinook salmon, their main food source, has become increasingly scarce, particularly as the drought has depleted their numbers. Salmon overfishing, pollution, vessel disturbance, have threatened the orcas’ main source of food. Orcas appear to be malnourished, showing signs of “peanut head” — a condition in which a whale has lost so much body fat that a depression appears behind its blowhole.

While this action helps ensure the orcas’ ocean home will be protected, more action is urgently needed to restore wild salmon populations the orcas depend on,” Ben Enticknap, a senior scientist with Oceana, said in a statement.

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