"I'm glad the federal government has taken this first step towards ensuring a healthier Puget Sound for our much loved whales," said former five-term Washington Secretary of State, Ralph Munro. "I have spent my life appreciating these whales and have been very concerned about decline in recent years. The good news is that we can save the whales if we improve their habitat."
"The orcas' situation is truly urgent, and it is good that NOAA Fisheries is moving ahead," observed Kathy Fletcher, executive director of People for Puget Sound, a group engaging citizens in Puget Sound restoration. "But to truly save the orcas we need to save Puget Sound. We're disappointed that key areas are excluded from the critical habitat designation, and that the recovery plan does not effectively address the toxic chemicals that are poisoning the population."
The Southern Resident orca community is an extended family of whales that live in close-knit matriarchal family units for their entire lives. Since the last ice age, the Southern Residents have made their home in Puget Sound, the San Juan Islands, Haro Strait, the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and the northwest coast, with the entire population reuniting here every summer. These whales are among the most intelligent animals in the world with their own language and greeting rituals.
During the 1990s, the Southern Residents declined by 20 percent, leaving only 87 members of this magnificent and famed family remaining on the planet. In December 2005 Earthjustice, working with several conservation groups, won protection for this shrinking population of orcas under the Endangered Species Act. Today's 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.
Conservationists view the recovery plan as essential to enabling these iconic animals to once again thrive in the waters of Puget Sound even as the region's human population grows in the coming decades.
"With the Endangered Species Act tools in place, the orcas have hope that the causes of their decline can be addressed and they will continue to share these inland waters with the people in this region," said Patti Goldman, managing attorney of Earthjustice's Seattle office, who litigated the case to obtain the listing. "Unfortunately, the Building Industry Association of Washington has a different vision for Puget Sound, one without orcas, but we are fighting their legal challenge to eliminate the ESA protections."
While conservationists are pleased that NOAA Fisheries has designated the bulk of the inland waters as critical habitat, they are troubled by exclusions for the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary, Hood Canal, military sites, and shallow waters.
"The Southern Resident orcas spend close to half their life in offshore waters which are not included in this plan. We are missing a significant opportunity by not including the resources of the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary in this recovery effort," observed Fred Felleman, Northwest director of Ocean Advocates.
"While we are pleased that the waters of the San Juan Archipelago are included in this plan, we need to ensure that all orca habitat, offshore and nearshore inland waters, are included. If we are to truly recover this totemic transboundary species, we need better conservation planning with the U.S. military and the Canadian government," said Stephanie Buffum Field, executive director of Friends of the San Juans.
"Hood Canal is an important area for resident orca recovery and should be considered critical. We and other Hood Canal citizen-sighters are dismayed that NOAA was initially unaware of the Southern resident orcas' use of the canal, and then apparently disgregarded the evidence they received during the comment period," said Margo Wyckoff.