Lawsuit Forces Federal Protection for Endangered Orcas’ West Coast Habitat
SEATTLE— The Center for Biological Diversity has won a victory in the legal battle to force the Trump administration to protect the West Coast habitat of the last remaining Southern Resident killer whales.
The National Marine Fisheries Service has committed to proposing a rule acting on the Center’s 2014 petition for orca habitat protection off Washington, Oregon and California. An expanded designation of critical habitat has to be proposed by early October to help the critically endangered orcas, which are starving for lack of salmon and being hurt by boat traffic and water pollution.
The Center sued the administration last year for delays in protecting orcas in their full habitat range, a violation of the Endangered Species Act. The Southern Resident population dropped to just 75, the lowest number in more than 30 years, as the federal government delayed decisions on expanding protections for the orcas.
“The Trump administration has to move forward with giving these critically endangered orcas the protections they need and deserve,” said Miyoko Sakashita, the director of the Center’s oceans program. “These magnificent killer whales are in real trouble. Protecting their feeding grounds is more important than ever, especially with the birth of a new baby.”
In January 2019 scientists in Washington confirmed the birth of a baby orca named Lucky. The calf was spotted with its pod recently in Monterey Bay, Calif. The first calf to survive past birth since 2015, Lucky underscores the urgent need to improve feeding opportunities for Southern Resident killer whales along their whole West Coast habitat. Currently only their summer feeding grounds in Washington’s Puget Sound are designated as critical habitat.
The Center petitioned in 2014 to better protect areas off the coasts of Washington, Oregon and California (see map). The Endangered Species Act prohibits federal agencies from authorizing activities that will destroy or harm a listed species’ critical habitat. Animals with federally protected critical habitat are more than twice as likely to be recovering as species without it, a Center study found.
“This legal victory might save the day for these endangered orcas,” Sakashita said. “Keeping the oceans healthy for orcas isn’t only a legal mandate, but a moral one. We owe that to our children and the next generation of orcas.”