Questions & Answers on the NOAA Fisheries’ 90 day finding on Critical Habitat Revision for Endangered Species Act listing of Southern Resident Killer Whales (April 2014)

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 DPS.  Critical habitat is based on habitat features that are essential for the conservation of a species.  The essential features of the SRKW 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;
(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.

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 communication or foraging activities, (b) do not result in 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 information presented in the petition?
A. On April 25, 2014, we found that the petition, viewed in the context of information readily available in our files, presented scientific information indicating that the petitioned action may be warranted.  The standard for determining whether a petition includes substantial information is if the amount of information presented would lead a reasonable person to believe that the measure proposed in the petition may be warranted.  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 are the next steps?
A. We are now initiating a review of the currently designated critical habitat to determine whether revision is warranted.  To ensure a comprehensive review, we are soliciting scientific and commercial information pertaining to this action in a 60 day comment period.  Scientific and commercial information pertinent to the petitioned action must be received by June 24, 2014.  See our website for more information:  http://www.westcoast.fisheries.noaa.gov/protected_species/marine_mammals/killer_whale/esa_status.html
Based on our review, we will make a 12-month determination in January 2015 whether revising critical habitat is warranted.  If we find it is warranted, we are required to publish notice of how we intend to proceed with revising critical habitat in the Federal Register.

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