The federal agency in charge of endangered orca recovery is proposing to add more than 10 million acres of Pacific coastal waters to the area it considers "critical habitat." The government does not expect the expanded habitat designation to affect coastal economies.
The National Marine Fisheries Service previously designated the inland waters of Western Washington — Puget Sound, San Juan Islands, Strait of Juan de Fuca — as critical habitat for endangered killer whales.
The move follows a lawsuit from an environmental group last year that included a push for these changes.
“While they already had to do an analysis of the impacts they were having on orcas, this designation adds a second layer of protection for those orcas,” said Julie Teel Simmonds, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity.
The Pacific coastal waters proposed as critical habitat also are prime fishing grounds for humans and potential sites for wave energy or offshore wind farms. The federal orca recovery coordinator says impacts from those activities, as well as hydropower dams, were going to be scrutinized in any case.
"In many ways, the way we have been comprehensively reviewing projects for effects to the whales will continue," Lynne Barre of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association told public radio Wednesday. "This added layer of critical habitat review will most likely be very consistent and complimentary to that."