Question & Answer on the NOAA Fisheries 12-month finding on a Petition to Expand Critical Habitat of Southern Resident killer whales to include marine waters of West Coast

Q.  What is critical habitat?
A.
  Critical habitat is a term defined in the ESA, and refers to specific areas that contain habitat features that are essential for the conservation of a listed species, which may require special management considerations or protections.  Under the ESA, Federal agencies must take precautions to ensure that activities that they fund, authorize (permit), or carry out do not destroy or adversely modify identified critical habitat.

Q.  Is there currently critical habitat designated for Southern Resident killer whales?
A.
  Yes, in November 2006, we issued a final rule designating approximately 2,560 square miles (6,630 square km) of inland waters of Washington State as critical habitat for the Southern Resident killer whale Distinct Population Segment (DPS).  Critical habitat is based on habitat features that are essential for the conservation of a species.  The essential features of the Southern Resident killer whale population’s current critical habitat include the following:
     (1) water quality to support growth and development;
     (2) prey species of sufficient quantity, quality, and availability to support individual growth, reproduction, and development, as well as  
           overall population growth; and
     (3) passage conditions to allow for migration, resting, and foraging.

Q.  Why is NOAA Fisheries reviewing the petition to revise the critical habitat for Southern Resident killer whales?
A.
  Any person can petition the Secretary (of Interior or Commerce) to list or delist a species or revise critical habitat under the Endangered Species Act. Within 90 days after receiving a petition, to the maximum extent practicable, the Secretary must make a finding as to whether the petition presents substantial scientific or commercial information indicating that the petitioned action may be warranted.

On January 21, 2014, NOAA Fisheries received a petition from the Center for Biological Diversity to revise the critical habitat designation of the Southern Resident killer whales.  This required that NOAA Fisheries review the information presented in the petition to determine if revision of critical habitat may be warranted. On April 25, 2014, we accepted the petition and requested public comments to inform consideration of revisions to critical habitat. The petition presented information about the population’s winter range and foraging activities in the Washington, Oregon, and California coastal and offshore areas and information about sound as an element of the whales’ habitat. 

Q.  What revisions to the critical habitat designation are the petitioners requesting?
A. 
The Center for Biological Diversity petitioned us to revise critical habitat to:

      (1) include the region between Cape Flattery, Washington, (48° N, 124° W) and Point Reyes, California, (37° N, 123° W), extending 
            from the coast to a distance of approximately 76 kilometers offshore; and
      (2) adopt as a primary constituent element, for both currently designated critical habitat and the proposed revised critical habitat, in-
            water sound levels that (a) do not exceed thresholds that inhibit the whales’ communication or foraging activities, (b) do not result 
            in their temporary or permanent hearing loss to whales, and (c) do not result in abandonment of critical habitat areas.

Q.  What did NOAA Fisheries conclude about the requested revision to critical habitat in the petition?
A.
  Based on our review of the information in the petition, in our files, and received during the public comment period, our 12-month determination outlines how we intend to proceed with the requested revision to critical habitat. 

Q.  What are the next steps?
A.
  The 12-month finding outlines the next steps of how we intend to proceed with the requested revision to critical habitat.  The steps include additional data collection and analysis, identifying areas that meet the definition of critical habitat and considering the benefits and impacts (i.e., economic or national security impacts) of designating particular areas.  The next step would involve developing a proposed rule for public comment.  We anticipate developing a proposed rule for publication in 2017.

Q.  Where can I learn more about Southern Resident killer whales?
A. 
The killer whale (Orcinus orca), or orca, is found in all oceans. The Southern Resident killer whale DPS is composed of J, K, and L pods. These whales are the "resident" type, spending specific periods each year in the San Juan Islands and Puget Sound. The Southern Residents are fish-eating whales and feed mostly on salmon.  We have information on the Endangered Species Act listing, status reviews, recovery planning, critical habitat, and our new 10-year report for the Southern Resident killer whales posted on our web page at: http://www.westcoast.fisheries.noaa.gov/protected_species/marine_mammals/killer_whale/index.html