Puget Sound Declared Critical Habitat for Orcas
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has proposed a draft recovery plan for Puget Sound and designated a critical habitat for the endangered Southern resident orca whales that inhabit these waters.
The Southern resident orcas are an extended family of whales that live in matriarchal family units. They inhabit Puget Sound, the San Juan Islands, Haro Strait, the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and the northwest coast, and the entire population reunites there every summer.
During the 1990s, the number of Southern resident orcas declined by 20 percent, leaving only 87 members of the family.
In December 2005, the nonprofit public interest law firm Earthjustice, working with several conservation groups, won protection for these orcas under the Endangered Species Act.
The new critical habitat designation identifies the core habitats that must be protected to ensure recovery of the orcas.
The draft recovery plan is a blueprint to address the causes of the orcas’ decline, which have been identified as toxic contamination in the food chain, the decline of salmon runs that feed the orcas, and human disturbance from vessel traffic and noise, as well as the risk of disease outbreaks and oil spills.
The People for Puget Sound, a group engaging citizens in Puget Sound restoration, warns that the orcas’ situation is urgent. The group is disappointed that key areas, including the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary, Hood Canal, military sites, and shallow waters, have been excluded from NOAA’s critical habitat designation, and that the recovery plan does not effectively address the toxic chemicals that are poisoning the orca population.