Feds launch process to protect endangered west coast orcas from vessel disturbance

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SEATTLE— The National Marine Fisheries Service today announced a public scoping process to determine how to protect critically endangered Southern Resident killer whales from boat noise and disturbance in Washington’s inland waters.

The announcement follows a lawsuit filed in August by the Center for Biological Diversity and Orca Relief Citizens’ Alliance (ORCA) seeking to create a “whale protection zone” off the west coast of San Juan Island. The groups welcomed today’s federal action but urged officials to move quickly to protect a population that has dropped to just 73 orcas.

“Southern Residents need strong federal protection from vessel noise and disturbance in the heart of their Salish Sea habitat,” said Julie Teel Simmonds, an attorney at the Center. “These orcas don’t need another long process that leads to insufficient half steps. We need urgent action to keep vessels out of areas where these beautiful animals can gather, rest and eat. Every day of delay and disturbance is another step closer to extinction for this critically endangered population.”

Southern Residents are declining rapidly because of vessel noise and disturbance, depletion of wild salmon runs, and water pollution.

Today’s notice launches a 60-day period for public comments on the need for more protective regulations. It also announces a Nov. 12 public hearing from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. at Brickworks Event Center in Friday Harbor, Washington. The Center and ORCA have requested an additional hearing in Seattle given the national and international interest in this orca population.

“Among the most intelligent and revered marine mammals in the oceans of the world, the Southern Resident orcas need our most concerted and comprehensive protection immediately,” said Janet Thomas, executive director of ORCA. “They are beacons of our future. As they go, so we go.”

In 2016 the Center and ORCA petitioned the Fisheries Service to establish a whale protection zone off the west coast of San Juan Island. Officials didn’t respond so the groups sued the Service in August for failing to protect these endangered orcas.

Vessel noise blocks the ability of the Southern Residents to use their echolocation to locate dwindling food resources. Keeping vessels out of a whale protection zone would quickly give these orcas quieter areas for foraging, communicating, resting and navigating.

Article Source: Center for Biological Diversity