When a species is listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), the federal government is also required to identify geographic areas that should be designated “critical habitat” for the species. These areas have physical (water quality or open passage for migration) or biological (prey) features essential to the species’ reproduction and survival - essentially, what they need from their habitat to survive. Some of those features may also require special management considerations or protection. Critical habitat designation does not close an area to human activities, but it does require review of federal actions that might impact the features of the area. For more information about critical habitat designation: Critical Habitat | NOAA Fisheries.
Southern Resident orca critical habitat was originally designated in 2006 and included the inland U.S. waters of the Salish Sea. It was revised in 2021 to include the coastal waters of Washington, Oregon, and California. This initial critical habitat designation and its recent expansion were necessary steps and an important use of the ESA to protect the orcas and their home. While there is still work to ensure that critical habitat is protected and given the best level of review for any proposed activities, knowing what the Southern Residents need to survive - and where they need it - is vital for their survival and recovery.
To read more about the process of designating critical habitat for Southern Resident orcas, check out the story below.
L Pod, San Juan Island ©Orca Network.
Designating Critical Habitat
When a species is listed under the Endangered Species Act, federal agencies in charge of species management and recovery - such as the National Marine Fisheries Service or the US Fish and Wildlife Service are required to determine whether there are geographic areas that should be designated critical habitat. This is defined as specific areas that contain physical or biological features essential to the conservation of the species and that may require special management considerations or protection. This designation does not close an area to human activities, but it does offer additional protections from federal actions that might impact critical habitat. These federal agencies are required to perform additional scrutiny on proposed projects to understand any potential impacts to an endangered species or their home, and may require specific mitigation measures to reduce the effects of an action. For more information about critical habitat designation: Critical Habitat | NOAA Fisheries.
Critical Habitat map for Southern Resident orcas ©NOAA Fisheries.
Southern Resident orca critical habitat was originally designated in 2006, a year after their endangered listing. It included approximately 2,560 square miles of habitat in the U.S. waters of the Salish Sea - the waters in Haro Strait and around the San Juan Islands, Puget Sound, and the Strait of Juan de Fuca. While this was a great first step, it clearly wasn’t enough, as this is only a portion of the range Southern Residents are known to travel in.
In 2014, a petition was filed by Center for Biological Diversity to revise critical habitat and include the orcas’ coastal habitat off Washington, Oregon, and California. In 2015, NOAA Fisheries concluded that the revision was warranted and began collecting and analyzing data to revise critical habitat. This process took a staggering 4 years but in 2019, NOAA Fisheries released a proposed rule that finally became official in August 2021. The revised critical habitat for Southern Resident orcas now includes almost 16,000 square miles of marine waters from the U.S.-Canada border down to Point Sur, California. For more information about Southern Resident orca critical habitat: Critical Habitat for Southern Resident Killer Whales | NOAA Fisheries
While there is still much that needs to be done to recover Southern Resident orcas, this initial critical habitat designation and its recent expansion were necessary steps and an important use of the ESA to protect the orcas and their home. As a result of this designation, federal agencies must now consult with NOAA Fisheries to ensure any actions they fund, authorize, or undertake are not likely to destroy or adversely modify the orcas’ critical habitat or the essential features that have been identified as necessary to their survival.