Upcoming Conference | 2019 Re-Wire Policy Conference, Dec 10, 2019 Register

Conservation group sues US Government over critical habitat for orcas

The Center for Biological Diversity, a non-profit conservation organization, has filed a lawsuit against the National Marine Fisheries Service and the US Secretary of Commerce, over their inaction to create expanded “critical habitat designation” for Southern Resident killer whales.

The Center for Biological Diversity filed the lawsuit in US District Court in Seattle on Thursday morning.

In 2006, the Fisheries Service designated the inland waterways around the San Juan Islands and the Puget Sound as designated critical habitat for Southern Residents. As it is used in the Endangered Species Act, “critical habitats” are areas that require special management and protection in order to help conserve endangered or threatened species. Southern Resident Killer Whales normally live in these inland waters during the warmer months, but travel to coastal areas off Washington, Oregon, and California in the winter.

In 2014, The Center petitioned the Fisheries Services to expand the critical habitat of the whales along these coasts to protect them during their travel in the winter months. In 2015 the Fisheries Services found that the request to increase the critical habitat was warranted and said it would propose a critical habitat rule in 2017.

Since then, the agency has not proposed or finalized a rule to expand the whale’s critical habitat. The Center’s lawsuit argues that the delay has put these whales at risk.

“More than four years have now elapsed since the Fisheries Service received the petition to expand critical habitat for the Southern Resident killer whales. And it has been more than two years since the agency admitted that a revision was warranted. This ongoing delay deprives these endangered killer whales of important legal protections and the population has experienced an alarming decline in the meantime,” reads the lawsuit.

“Expanded critical habitat for Southern Resident killer whales will likely contribute to better habitat protections, such as reducing water and noise pollution, restricting vessel traffic, and improving foraging habitat. These will improve the chances of survival and recovery for Southern Resident killer whales that are enjoyed by the Center and its members.”

The plight of the Southern Resident killer whales made national news this month when a J pod orca was seen carrying her dead calf for over two weeks. Another orca from the J pod is severely malnourished. There are currently only 75 Southern Resident killer whales left – the lowest population they have seen in 34 years.

The Center asks that the Court establish a deadline for the agency to propose and finalize rules to revise the critical habitat designation.