national marine fisheries

Feds Will Expand Habitat Protections for Endangered Killer Whales on West Coast 

Declining Salmon Populations, Pollution, Ocean Noise Threaten Iconic Species
Off Coasts of Washington, Oregon, California

SEATTLE— The National Marine Fisheries Service announced today that it intends to expand critical habitat protections along the West Coast for endangered “Southern Resident” killer whales. The finding, which says a decision will be made in 2017, comes in response to apetition by the Center for Biological Diversity seeking to extend Endangered Species Act protection to the whales’ winter foraging range off the coasts of Washington, Oregon and California.

After several drastic declines, only 81* killer whales remain in the Southern Resident population.

“Killer whales are at a crossroads, and protecting their foraging habitat along the West Coast will be essential to their recovery,” said Miyoko Sakashita, the Center’s oceans director.

In response to a petition from the Center and allies, the Fisheries Service determined in 2005 that Southern Residents are in danger of extinction. Although the agency has protected portions of the population’s summer habitat in the Puget Sound (about 2,500 square miles), some 9,000 square miles of important offshore habitat areas have recently been documented.

The whales travel extensively along the West Coast during the winter and early spring, regularly congregating near coastal rivers to feed on migrating salmon. The Center’s petition sought to protect these areas off the coasts of Washington, Oregon and California as critical habitat (see map). While today’s finding indicates that the Fisheries Service intends to proceed with a revised critical habitat designation, it also will delay proposing a rule until 2017 to gather more information.

“Killer whales need new habitat protections to prevent ocean pollution and noise that can interfere with their ability to locate prey. While the Fisheries Service’s announcement is an important step forward, time is of the essence, and those new habitat protections are needed now,” said Sakashita.

Human activities in and near coastal waters threaten these whales by reducing salmon numbers, generating toxic pollution and increasing ocean noise, which disrupts the orcas’ ability to communicate and locate prey.

Critical habitat designations prevent the federal government from undertaking or approving activities that reduce an area’s ability to support an endangered species. Studies show that species with designated critical habitat are more than twice as likely to be recovering as those without it.

*This Southern Resident population actually stands at 79 members, not 81.

From The Center for Biological Diversity

Image: Family (Credit: Hysazu on Flickr.)

Over 5 years ago, WDC, in partnership with The Humane Society of the United States, Center for Biological Diversity, and Defenders of Wildlife, petitioned the U.S. government to increase federally designated critical habitat for the 500 remaining critically endangered North Atlantic right whales.  On that day in 2009, we believed we had laid out all of the necessary data, new information, and reasons as to why these whales needed more than 8.5% of their U.S. “home” area protected.   But it wasn’t until last week that the National Marine Fisheries Service, the U.S. agency charged with protecting North Atlantic right whales, finally announced its proposal to increase critical habitat!

So why did it take almost six years to get here?!  It’s complicated.

Critical habitat is a tool available to species listed under the US Endangered Species Act (ESA). When a species is listed under the ESA, the government designates specific habitat necessary for the conservation and recovery of the listed species.  This critical habitat may need special management consideration.  For North Atlantic right whales, a portion of their calving and feeding range was protected in 1994.  Since that time, research has shown that these whales use additional areas for calving, mating, feeding, and migrating - far beyond what was originally designated.  These data constituted “new information” which we used when we submitted our petition, asking the government to expand the boundaries of critical habitat. This 79-page petition was submitted on September 16th, 2009, requesting protection of the waters from New England to Florida.

Once the government receives a petition such as this, a clock starts ticking.  Under the law, they have up to 90 days to review the request and publish a finding that the petition is either warranted (they generally agree to proceed in the process); unwarranted (no, they don’t agree and that’s the end of it); or warranted but precluded (they agree that you made some valid points, but they state that they can’t grant the request at this time for a variety of administrative reasons).

On October 1, 2009, we received a letter indicating that the agency in charge, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), had received our petition.  According to the law, they would have had to respond with a finding by the end of December.  We were dismayed and surprised that we didn’t hear a response after this mandated 90 days. We tried to be patient, but our patience started to wear thin, so in February of 2010 we sent a letter notifying the government of our intent to sue for not responding when they were supposed to (under the Endangered Species Act, you are required to warn the government that you are intending to take legal action).  In response to our letter, the government agency asked to meet with us. WDC and our conservation partners traveled to NOAA Headquarters in Washington DC on April 19th, 2010, to find out what was holding up their response to our petition.    We felt optimistic after what we believed to be a successful meeting, anticipating an imminent response to our petition, but still, it didn’t come.

The day after our meeting, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill began, dumping more than 200 million gallons of oil in the Gulf of Mexico, and much of NOAA went into crisis-mode, focusing its attention on the disaster.  Understanding the need to triage, we waited longer for a response.

On May 25, 2010, two hundred and thirty days after filing our petition, we finally went to court, charging NOAA with an unreasonable delay of the process.  It was this action that finally led NOAA to make a determination on our petition. On October 6, 2010, they agreed that our petition provided substantial new information and said they would propose a revision of right whale critical habitat by the second half of 2011.  Finally a victory!  But was it?

It was frustrating to have had to wait over a year to receive a response and now we were asked to wait another year to see a proposal.   We waited again.  The end of 2011 came and went and no proposals were published. In January of 2012, we sent a request to NOAA under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) asking them for all records of what they were doing to move forward with revising right whale critical habitat so we could understand what exactly was causing the delay.  In March, NOAA responded and assured us that they had “made substantial progress” and “were moving forward as quickly as possible”.   While we were frustrated, we were concerned that the court would be sympathetic to NOAA’s assertion that they were moving forward, so we had little to do but wait again. And we waited….through the rest of 2012 and all of 2013.

In 2014, four and a half years after we petitioned, we lost our patience and went back to court.  On April 10, 2014 WDC and its conservation partners filed suit, charging NOAA with “unlawful and unreasonable delay” in responding to our petition.  In response to this lawsuit, NOAA signed a legally binding time frame for revising right whale critical habitat that can be enforced by the court. As a result of our efforts, NOAA is legally obligated to designate additional areas as critical habitat for right whales by February 2016!  This additional year is needed to allow the public time to weigh in on the proposed changes.

Now we need your help and your voice to ensure protections for not just right whales themselves, but also their habitat—their “home”.  We have not given up on fighting to protect North Atlantic right whale habitat over the past five years.  Now we are asking you to take just five minutes to add your name to the letter of support for increasing right whale critical habitat.

Impacts from humans may currently be jeopardizing right whale habitat, but input from humans can make all the difference for their survival.

  Please sign and share our letter.

Last year, 63 marine mammals died in captivity at U.S. zoos and theme parks, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service. The mortality rate for marine mammals at these sites is 3.6 percent, “which is superb compared to the wild,” said the alliance’s executive director, Marilee Menard.
— 

2005 X what kind of friggin comparison fuckery is this?!

Feds Propose to Protect 39,655 Square Miles for Endangered Whales Along East Coast

From the Center for Biological Diversity:

In response to the efforts of conservation and wildlife protection groups, the National Marine Fisheries Service today proposed to protect 39,655 square miles as critical habitat for North Atlantic right whales. Only about 450 of the critically endangered whales exist today, and without additional protections the species faces a serious risk of extinction.

The Fisheries Service’s proposed rule would protect crucial habitat for right whales, including northeast feeding areas in the Gulf of Maine/Georges Bank region and calving grounds from southern North Carolina to northern Florida. However, the proposal entirely ignores the species’ twice-yearly migratory routes through the mid-Atlantic. 

“Right whales are at an extinction crossroads right now — offshore oil drilling, military sonar and commercial shipping on the Atlantic pose a serious risk to their survival. Protecting critical habitat between calving and foraging areas will be essential to saving these majestic whales,” said Miyoko Sakashita, oceans director at the Center for Biological Diversity.

Dear Mr. Minister:

Sea World wishes to have the benefit of your views concerning the disposition of a killer whale that was originally collected in Icelandic waters and which Sea World recently imported to the United States from Sealand of the Pacific in Victoria, British Columbia (Canada). An administrative process now underway in the United States Department of Commerce could lead to an order for the return of the killer whale to its point of collection. Sea World believes that this presents an important and urgent issue. This letter reviews the events surrounding the importation of the killer whale and describes the relevant provisions of U.S. law.

On November 7, 1991, Sea World submitted an application to the National Marine Fisheries Service (“NMFS”), Department of Commerce, for a permit to import three killer whales, two females and one male, from Sealand of the Pacific for purposes of public display and captive propagation. At the time of the application, and prior to its submission, Sea World advised NMFS that at least one female was pregnant. Sea World further advised NMFS that if the female successfully delivered a calf it might be necessary to remove the male from Sealand in order to ensure successful nursing and bonding of the female and calf.

A calf was successfully delivered on December 24, 1991. After delivery, the adult male, Tilikum, was forced into a small medical pool by the females and was confined there. Due to the potential health problems associated with that confinement and the potential threat to the mother and calf if the male returned to the main pool and attempted to interfere with the mother or calf, Sea World applied to NMFS for a temporary emergency permit to import Tilikum. Sea World applied for a temporary emergency permit because NMFS had not yet acted upon the permanent permit application. The emergency application was submitted on January 3, 1992, and was approved on January 8, 1992 whereupon Tilikum was transported from Victoria to Sea World in Orlando, Florida. Prior to approval, representatives of the Government of Canada, NMFS, and the U.S. Marine Mammal Commission observed the situation and concurred with Sea World that immediate importation of Tilikum was required for his best interest. The November 7, 1991 application for a permanent permit is still pending at NMFS.

The provisions of the US Marine Mammal Protection Act under which the emergency permit was granted provide that if it is “feasible” to return the imported animal “to its natural habitat” then “steps to achieve that result shall be taken.” Although this provision was intended to address the rescue and release of beached and stranded animals, it was nevertheless incorporated by reference into the emergency import permit for Tilikum. The permit also stated that if Sea World’s November 7, 1991 application for permanent placement of Tilikum was disapproved, then NMFS could require Sea World to release Tilikum “at the original location of capture.” Tilikum was collected in 1983 in waters subject to the jurisdiction of Iceland.

The permit conditions reflect the recommendations of the Marine Mammal Commission, which stated

[NMFS] should identify what steps (e.g. identification of an area and/or group of wild animals to which release would be appropriate, authorization under U.S. and/or foreign law, retraining the animal. monitoring the animal once released, etc.) would be necessary to effect the return of the whale to Icelandic waters and determine if such release is feasible.

The Marine Mammal Commission and NMFS apparently believe NMFS has the authority to compel the return of Tilikum to waters subject to the jurisdiction of Iceland. Although the existence of such authority is not clear, Sea World believes any such action would require, at minimum, consultation with and approval by Icelandic authorities. We assume that approval by the Government of Iceland would also require its determination that the return is feasible.

Sea World believes a determination of the feasibility requires an analysis of 1) the likelihood that Tilikum will survive if released; 2) the possible impact of Tilikum’s release on the fishing industry, since Tilikum was maintained in a net enclosure at Sealand and is accustomed to human beings and nets; and 3) the potential impact of Tilikum’s release on the marine environment. The last mentioned determination would require an in-depth analysis of the incidence and distribution of disease and disease causing organisms in the fish and marine mammal populations in Icelandic and Canadian waters, as well as an analysis of any possible latent pathogens being carried by Tilikum. While at Sealand, Tilikum was maintained in an ocean pen surrounded by a 500-boat marina and occasionally consumed fish native to the region. Even with a thorough examination of Tilikum, it is possible that the presence of some subclinical organisms not native to Icelandic waters might not be detected.

After considering the available information, Sea World believes it is not feasible to return Tilikum to Icelandic waters, primarily because Tilikum is not likely to survive once released. However, Sea World wishes to consult with the Government of Iceland and obtain its views on these matters, since any such release would be subject to the laws and jurisdiction of Iceland.

—  Brad Andrews, SeaWorld, 1991
(X)

The current awareness of the sharp decline in the southern residents population has reached the National Marine Fisheries Service (US). They are looking to increase the current protected area in Washington, Oregon as well as Northern California to 9,000 square miles. However this is just pending for now and the final decision will be made in 2017.

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An orca population that can be seen off the coast at Point Reyes could get federal protection under a plan announced Monday by the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service.
A federally endangered group of about 80 orcas, or killer whales, that are known as “southern residents,” lives in Washington state near Puget Sound and the San Juan Islands in the summer, then migrates south as far as Point Reyes in the winter to feed on salmon and other fish.The federal government has already given the critical habitat designation for the Washington area and now will spend the next 12 months determining if an extension down the West Coast to Marin is warranted.”In 2013 our researchers followed a group to Point Reyes, so we know they go that far south,” said Michael Milstein, spokesman for the fisheries service. “We have researchers on a boat right now off of Oregon tracking the killer whales. All this data will be looked at and a decision will be made.”A decision should come in 2017.