Proposed orca critical habitat on Washington coast

NOAA Fisheries is proposing to expand critical habitat for Southern Resident killer whales along the West Coast, based on information about their coastal range and habitat use.

The proposal would extend critical habitat for the whales along a roughly 1,000-mile swath of West Coast waters between the depths of 20 feet and about 650 feet from Cape Flattery south to Point Sur, California, just south of Santa Cruz and Monterey Bay. The additional area covers roughly 15,626 square miles, or more than 10 million acres.

A key portion of the proposed critical habitat is the ocean just off the coast of Pacific County, where researchers have often observed the orcas hunting for salmon. Genetic testing of fecal samples collected from orca predation in county waters between 2009 and 2015 found the whales had consumed Chinook salmon from Snake River spring and summer runs, Lower Columbia spring and fall runs, mid-Columbia tules, California Central Valley spring runs and other unidentified Chinook stocks.

Biologist Brad Hanson of NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center told the Seattle Times last week the whales’ use of the outer coast has become more intense since he conducted research that included satellite tagging of the orcas ending in 2015. That work showed the biggest hot spot for the whales was the mouth of the Columbia River and the Grays Harbor area, where they were targeting Columbia Chinook, the Times reported.

“Hanson in two field seasons has seen very little of the southern residents in their usual summer home waters of the San Juan Islands,” the Times said. “He didn’t see the orcas at all in June and so far only twice in September. Usually, he would have seen them nearly every day this month. The whales are adjusting their range to the outer coast, and ‘to see this abrupt change is startling,’ Hanson said. Reasons could include prey availability or mating opportunities, he said.”

Willapa Bay and the Columbia River estuary are not included in the proposed critical habitat.

NOAA Fisheries is seeking public comments on the proposal.

Diverse prey

Research documenting the Southern Residents’ use of coastal waters included collection of prey and fecal samples. Genetic analysis of the samples showed that while frequenting the West Coast the whales prey on salmon from as far south as California’s Central Valley and as far north as the Taku River in Alaska.

“We now know more clearly that the whales rely on a diversity of salmon stocks from different rivers up and down the West Coast,” said Lynne Barre, recovery coordinator for the Southern Resident killer whales in NOAA Fisheries’ West Coast Region. “The critical habitat proposal takes that all into account.”

The designation of critical habitat pertains to federal agencies, which must avoid damaging or destroying critical habitat. Activities that are not funded, authorized, or carried out by a federal agency remain unaffected.

Critical habitat recognizes areas with the physical and biological features essential to the conservation of listed species. In the case of Southern Resident killer whales, that includes:

•Water quality that supports growth and development of the whales

•Sufficient prey species to support growth, reproduction and development

•Passage conditions that allow the whales to migrate, forage, and rest

In 2006 NOAA Fisheries designated critical habitat for the killer whales in the inland waters of Puget Sound and the Salish Sea, where the whales typically spend much of the year. At the time there was not enough information to support extending the critical habitat to the outer coast.

Since then, satellite tracking, acoustic monitoring and sightings data have confirmed that two of the three Southern Resident pods regularly range south along the West Coast as far as the Central California Coast during winter. The third pod, J Pod, typically remains further north, either in inland waters or off the west side of Vancouver Island.

The critical habitat proposal includes six sections of coast, each with different habitat features. For instance, the availability of prey was the primary habitat feature along the Washington and northern Oregon coasts, the Northern California Coast, and the Monterey Bay area of California.

The proposal excludes the Navy’s Quinault Range Site off the coast of Washington and a 10-kilometer (6.2 mile) buffer around it, because the impacts to national security outweigh the benefits of designating it as critical habitat.

Research supporting the critical habitat proposal includes new details of the Chinook salmon stocks and other species that the Southern Residents prey on during winter off the West Coast.

Most of the Chinook the whales were documented eating came from the Columbia River Basin, including spring Chinook from the lower Columbia, fall salmon from the middle Columbia, and spring/summer Chinook from the upper Columbia.

While they mainly preyed on Chinook salmon, the whales also consumed halibut, lingcod, steelhead, chum, skate and northern anchovy at times.

While traveling the outer coast, the whales spent time during every month of the year off the Washington Coast, generally ranging between the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the mouth of the Columbia River given the seasonal abundance of salmon there. The whales also spend much of their time in late winter and early spring near the mouth of the Columbia River, coinciding with spring Chinook salmon returning to the Columbia and Snake rivers.

Legal moves

The Center for Biological Diversity in August 2018 filed a lawsuit with the Western District Court of Washington in Seattle, aiming to compel the government to proceed with a rule expanding and revising “critical habitat” designations for coastal waters used by the whales.

The group contended the agency has failed to protect West Coast habitat of a distinct and imperiled population of killer whales that is now estimated to include just 75 orcas.

The lawsuit said the Southern Resident killer whale population had reached its lowest point in 34 years and is continuing to decline, and that as of June 2018, the population estimate came to just 75 individual whales.

“Low availability of Chinook salmon, the whales’ primary prey, is contributing to their decline, and many of the animals are starving and emaciated. Southern Resident killer whales have failed to reproduce successfully since 2015. The principal threats to Southern Resident killer whales — starvation, contamination from toxic pollution and harassment from noise and vessels — can be reduced by better habitat protections.”

Earlier that month, NOAA Fisheries and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife unveiled a prioritized list of West Coast Chinook salmon stocks that are important to the recovery of killer whales. Several of the Chinook stocks are also listed under the Endangered Species Act.

In January 2014, the Center for Biological Diversity petitioned the National Marine Fisheries Service to expand critical habitat designations for waters off the Washington, Oregon and California coasts. The agency determined in February of 2015 that revising the designations is warranted, and indicated that new designations would be proposed in 2017.

“To date, the agency has failed to propose, much less finalize, a rule to revised Southern Resident killer whale critical habitat,” the August, 2018 lawsuit said. “This ongoing delay deprives these endangered killer whales of important legal protections and the population has experienced an alarming decline in the meantime.”

“We’re happy these endangered orcas are finally getting the habitat protection they desperately need,” said Julie Teel Simmonds, an attorney at the Center, said last week. “Expanding orcas’ habitat protection will help save these extraordinary animals and their prey from pollution, harassment and habitat degradation. Orcas are in crisis, and we need quick, bold actions to ensure their survival.”

A draft Biological Report for the Proposed Revision of the Critical Habitat Designation for Southern Resident Killer Whales says “Human activities managed under a variety of legal mandates have the potential to affect the habitat features essential to the conservation of Southern Resident killer whales, including those that could increase water contamination and/or chemical exposure, decrease the quantity, quality, or availability of prey, or could inhibit safe, unrestricted passage between important habitat areas to find prey and fulfill other life history requirements.”

“Examples of these types of activities include (but are not limited to): (1) salmon fisheries and bycatch; (2) salmon hatcheries; (3) offshore aquaculture/mariculture; (4) alternative energy development; (5) oil spills and response; (6) military activities; (7) vessel traffic; (8) dredging and dredge material disposal; (9) oil and gas exploration and production; (10) mineral mining (including sand and gravel mining); (11) geologic surveys (including seismic surveys); and (12) upstream activities (including activities contributing to point-source water pollution, power plant operations, liquefied natural gas terminals, desalinization plants). These activities were identified based on NMFS’ ESA section 7 consultation history since 2006 for existing critical habitat, along with additional information that has become available since the original designation.”

The biological report describes “categories of activity and their potential effects on the essential habitat features in areas being considered for new critical habitat designation.”

— The Chinook Observer has added to this story.

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