New information since 2005 listing
The Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) submitted a petition in 2014 asking for expanded critical habitat and the addition of sound as an essential feature of their habitat. Early in 2015, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) found that petition to be warranted, and while they plan to revise critical habitat, they also will delay proposing a rule until 2017 to “gather more information.” At the time that critical habitat was first designated for Southern Residents, there was limited information about winter ranges and coastal distribution, and uncertainty regarding important habitat features that would be essential to protect. Here we are ten years later, with considerably more knowledge, but no adjustments to the preliminary critical habitat decisions. NMFS’s 2008 Recovery Plan for the population calls for research and monitoring for adaptive management: the research and monitoring part is ongoing, with plenty of new data, but the adaptive management aspect has yet to be acted on. Adaptive management means making decisions even in the face of uncertainty, and we are now far from uncertain about what the Southern Residents need to recover.
For example, satellite tagging efforts since 2013 have shown that Southern Residents travel as far south as San Francisco during the winter months and spend time near river mouths, especially around the Columbia River, likely following migrating salmon. Similar information was gathered by visual sightings data and passive acoustic monitoring (listening for whales when we can’t see them). Much more is understood now about key issues central to conservation, such as seasonal changes in salmon stocks, the connection between the Southern Residents and Chinook salmon, the role of chemical contaminants in health, and the threats posed by boat noise and traffic.
We’ve answered these questions, but the population continues to struggle. So, we need to look at what we have learned in the past decade, and adapt our conservation measures to include this valuable information before it’s too late. NOAA has the information required to expand critical habitat now, using the best science available – as required by the Endangered Species Act, and orca scientists argue that there is more than enough information on the Southern Residents’ winter distribution to act on an expansion now. We know more than we did ten years ago, and instead of debating uncertainties and insisting on further research, we need more management action and forward movement. We can’t afford to treat conservation like a precise science when we know that flexibility is key to adaptive management, which itself is central to successful conservation, especially for a critically endangered population like the Southern Resident orcas.
Despite volumes of research published about these whales in the past decade, NOAA has made little actual progress to protect their basic needs. Rebuilding salmon populations, especially Chinook, is the most important thing we can do to kickstart recovery for these endangered orcas. Continuing to collect data, when NOAA has yet to analyze and make publically available prey samples collected from the last three years, is an important part of adaptive management, but should not be a barrier to making management decisions.
There is already some political momentum in favor of more critical habitat, but the current time frame is unacceptable. The Southern Residents’ ESA listing is critical to the population’s recovery, but will only work if the legal tools provided by the listing are used to the fullest extent possible. Expansion of critical habitat will augment the legal protection, to make the fact that they are listed as endangered actually effective in doing what it is meant to do in the first place: prevent extinction. NOAA’s selection of the Southern Resident orcas for the “Species in the Spotlight” campaign has yet to stimulate any meaningful action on their part, despite noting that habitat destruction is a major concern for their spotlighted species. NOAA is in charge of designating and expanding critical habitat, and they need to act on every power they have to protect the Southern Residents while these orcas still have a fighting chance.
This is the final week to sign our letter to the National Marine Fisheries Service and ask them to act on the information they have and expand critical habitat for the Southern Residents NOW.