Critical Habitat for the Southern Resident Killer Whale
We, NOAA Fisheries, propose to revise the critical habitat designation for the Southern Resident killer whale (Orcinus orca) distinct population segment (DPS) under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) by expanding it to include six new areas along the U.S. West Coast, while maintaining the whales' currently designated critical habitat in inland waters of Washington. Specific new areas proposed along the U.S. West Coast include roughly 15,626 square miles of marine waters between the 6.1-meter depth contour and the 200-meter depth contour from the U.S. international border with Canada south to Point Sur, California. We solicit comments from the public on all aspects of the proposal, including information on the economic, national security, and other relevant impacts of the proposed revision to the critical habitat designation.
The proposed rule follows our February 24, 2015 announcement of a 12-month finding on a petition from the Center for Biological Diversity to revise the critical habitat designation for the Southern Resident killer whale DPS. 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. The January 2014 petition requested we revise this critical habitat to include Pacific Ocean marine waters along the West Coast of the United States that constitute essential foraging and wintering areas for Southern Resident killer whales. Additionally, the petition requested that we adopt as a primary constituent element (or “essential feature”), for both currently designated critical habitat and the proposed revised critical habitat, protective in-water sound levels. The ESA defines a process for responding to petitions to revise critical habitat. We reviewed the public comments and best available information on Southern Resident killer whale habitat use and as the next step in the response to the petition process defined in the ESA, the 12-month determination describes how we intended to proceed with the requested revision.