Imagine you were hungry and walked into the backyard to pick some garden vegetables, but the garden had mysteriously vanished. Not to be defeated, you walk to the grocery store to find an office building in its place. Finally, you return home thinking you will munch on some emergency ramen stashed in the cupboard, but when you walk in, access to the kitchen has been blocked by a thick brick wall.
If our homes and communities are our habitat, we recognize that some areas are more critical than others. The aforementioned kitchen where we forage for food might be critical. Or the bed where we tuck ourselves safely in at night to get an essential night’s rest. Every inch of our habitat has a function, but for us and animals alike, there are some places neither of us can survive without.
Understanding what those places are for southern resident orcas – the group of orcas that live along the coast of the Pacific Northwest – has taken a very long time.
In 2006, a year after southern resident orcas were listed as endangered, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) designated the inland waters of Washington State, also known as the Salish Sea, as their critical habitat. This was great news. Experts recognized that there was still a lot about these orcas we didn’t yet know, but it was clear that without habitat protection, we may never get the chance. So they protected the area they could best determine at the time was the most important – the area the species lived in every summer.
As the years have passed, NMFS has conducted very focused research to answer important questions about the southern resident orcas. Where do they go in the winter? What do they prefer to eat? Why do they prefer certain types of habitat? By 2014, many of these questions had answers. We now know that southern resident orcas spend a hefty portion of the year along the outer coast of Washington, Oregon, and Northern California munching on Chinook salmon, their main prey. Satellite tracking found that the orcas forage up and down the length of their range, spending a significant amount of time at the mouth of the Columbia River, which used to hold the largest runs of salmon in the world. To finally have this knowledge is a vital step toward protecting the orcas. But these findings suggested that the earlier critical habitat designation had protected only part of the habitat that was most important to the species – not all of it.
The Endangered Species Act defines critical habitat as a specific geographic area or areas that contains features essential for the conservation (a.k.a. recovery) of a threatened or endangered species. While designating critical habitat doesn’t necessarily stop other uses or development, it does mean that federal agencies have to protect the habitat so that it continues to aid in the species’ recovery. Each species is highly adapted to their environments, just as we are. It is important that wildlife agencies designate critical habitat that not only protects the areas the species currently uses, but those areas that will help the population recover as well.
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With all the years of research and new information since the southern resident orca’s critical habitat was first determined, it became clear that the original area wasn’t enough. So conservation groups petitioned to have the area expanded from the outer coast of Washington to Northern California, nearly the species’ entire range.
Earlier this year, NMFS responded to the petition. Although the agency acknowledged that there was reason to consider expanding the critical habitat, it also stated that it wanted to analyze additional data in order to make a more informed decision. The agency plans to announce the final decision on whether or not to expand the critical habitat for the southern residents in 2017. That’s a long time for southern resident orcas to wait, especially considering the impacts that humans are already having on their habitat; and on their feeding grounds in particular. The number of Chinook salmon, the main food source of southern resident orca, has been dwindling across the region for years as pollution increases, their foraging and rearing habitat is lost to development, and barriers like dams cut off spawning habitat.
Designating critical habitat for southern resident orcas may be tricky. These animals follow their prey, and Chinook salmon ranges can vary widely. Rivers across the Northwest produce more or less salmon each year based on many different conditions, so it can be tough to predict where the salmon – and therefore the orcas – may be next. But that is all the more reason to expand the orca’s critical habitat. We need to protect the coastline where Chinook salmon-bearing rivers and streams meet the ocean.
The bottom line is that plenty of research has already been completed showing the full extent of southern resident orcas’ range. Any new research will show the same results, and the agency can always make other changes in the future if necessary. Along with many other conservation groups, we’ve reached out to NMFS to remind them of all this. The time is now to help the southern residents.