Endangered humpback whale habitat in the Pacific Ocean is getting new protections. (Credit: NOAA)

To Save Whales, Protect Their Habitat

Federal proposals would expand Pacific Ocean critical habitat designations for endangered orcas, humpbacks

Catherine Ware Kilduff
Oct 17 · 4 min read

Saving whales requires protecting their ocean habitat. That’s why two recent announcements that the federal government has proposed designating critical habitat for endangered orcas and humpback whales in the Pacific Ocean are so important. Habitat protection is the key to helping endangered whales recover.

Whales are beautiful, awe-inspiring creatures that help connect us to the natural world. They’re also vital to healthy ocean ecosystems. Whales maintain ecological balance by spreading nutrients, filtering out pollutants and even sequestering carbon that would otherwise contribute to global warming and climate change.

But without strong habitat protections to help compensate for the harm human activities do to whales, they will spiral back toward the extinctions we almost caused by hunting them for so many generations. Today, that means protecting whales from ship strikes, maritime noise, industrial pollution, overfishing, oil spills and entanglement in fishing gear.

Critically endangered Southern Resident killer whales would get habitat protection along their full West Coast range under a proposed federal rule.

The most urgent example of the need to protect whale habitat involves the Southern Resident killer whales, whose population has dropped to just 73 individuals, barely enough to have a shot at recovering. Protecting their habitat is essential to helping them avoid extinction.

These beloved orcas travel the West Coast from Canada to Monterey Bay searching for enough salmon to avoid starvation. Yet just a sliver of their full habitat, in Washington’s Puget Sound, was designated critical habitat in 2006.

We at the Center for Biological Diversity have been pushing to expand that critical habitat protection for many years. Finally, in September, prompted by our lawsuit challenging federal inaction, the National Marine Fisheries Service proposed designating all 15,627 square miles of the Southern Residents’ coastal range as critical habitat.

Just this week, the Fisheries Service also proposed critical habitat protections for three populations of endangered humpback whales — including a population of less than 800 humpbacks that winter in Central America and feed along the U.S. West Coast — covering 175,812 square miles in the Pacific Ocean. That overdue announcement was also triggered by a lawsuit we filed.

Both rules are now going through a public comment period before they can be finalized. But the powerful oil, shipping and fishing industries are likely to push the Trump administration to weaken them. And even if they’re adopted as-is, we still need uncorrupted federal officials to diligently enforce these protections.

Critical habitat protections are the heart and soul of the Endangered Species Act. Studies show that endangered species with good critical habitat protections are more than twice as likely to be recovering as species without.

A peer-reviewed study released earlier this year looked at 31 endangered marine species with the best biological survey data and found that 77 percent of them were recovering. That included 75 percent of sea turtles and 78 percent of marine mammals, all of whose populations were increasing since being listed under the Endangered Species Act, thanks mostly to their critical habitat protections.

Southern Resident killer whales. (Credit: Holly Fearnback/NOAA)

Sadly, Southern Resident killer whales were the exception. That’s probably because so little of their territorial waters were protected, and there’s a strong chance that protecting more of their habitat will turns things around. It’s up to us to ensure these beautiful, playful orcas survive, which will also mean restoring the wild salmon runs they feed on.

So tell federal officials you want whale habitat protected. Tell them you don’t want offshore drilling expanded in the Pacific, that you want ships to slow down along whale migration routes and the fishing industry to do more to avoid entangling whales, such as being more careful not to lose fishing gear and moving toward ropeless crab traps.

Increasing whale populations is good for the planet and it’s good for your soul, so let’s do more to protect their critical habitat. Go make your voice heard at the public hearings in November and December, 2019.

Public hearings will be held from 4 to 7 p.m. (local time) on the following dates:
November 4, 2019, in Santa Cruz, California;
November 5, 2019, in Newport, Oregon;
November 6, 2019, in Seattle, Washington;
November 7, 2019, in Juneau, Alaska; and
December 3, 2019, in Anchorage, Alaska.
For more information, please see

Center for Biological Diversity

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.6 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places. More info at www.biologicaldiversity.org

Catherine Ware Kilduff

Written by

Catherine Kilduff is a senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity’s oceans program.

Center for Biological Diversity

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.6 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places. More info at www.biologicaldiversity.org

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