Increase critical habitat for orcas

orca swimming in choppy water


Orcas depend on wide expanses of protected waters to swim and forage. Unfortunately, due to low food availability, high levels of pollution, and noise and disturbances from vessels, the southern resident orcas are on the brink of extinction. With the additional loss of three orcas this summer, the population is down to only 73 individuals. Right now, we have an opportunity to take positive action to help change that trajectory.

The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) has proposed expanding the critical habitat of these magnificent marine mammals. Critical habitat designation occurs when an animal is listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act, and it clearly defines any areas deemed necessary for the species to survive. Then, any new federal actions or federally funded activities proposed in the designated area must undergo a rigorous consultation process to ensure that they will not cause additional harm or stress to the species.

Currently, only 2,500 square miles of inland waters in Washington state have been designated as critical habitat for the orcas. This proposal would add 15,500 more square miles, spanning from the northern marine border between Washington and Canada all the way south to Monterey, California. Sightings and data show that the orcas regularly forage along this entire coastline. We hope you will join us in supporting this change by signing our letter to the NMFS below.




The Seattle Aquarium strongly supports this proposal, as an increased critical habitat helps protect the orcas from risks associated with numerous activities, such as seismic surveys and oil and gas development.

The proposal is not perfect; we are disappointed, for example, that NMFS decided to omit safe in-water sound levels as an essential habitat feature even though the science shows that sound from human activities undermines orcas’ ability to echolocate to forage for salmon. However, the overall benefits that will result from this expansion will help the orcas move off the path to extinction and get on the road to recovery. We hope you will join us in urging NMFS to finalize its proposed rule as soon as possible.

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