SEATTLE -- Most of the outer coast of Washington, Oregon and California would become protected habitat for southern resident orcas under a federal proposal released Wednesday.
The new designation, if approved would greatly expand the area considered "critical" for the survival of the endangered orcas that frequent Puget Sound. Since 2006, the inland waters of the Salish Sea have been considered critical habitat for the southern residents.
The designation requires review of federal actions within the areas that could affect southern resident killer whales, providing additional oversight by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Advocates for the designation say it provides another layer of review and more legal protection for the whales.
"We are thrilled," said Steve Jones, spokesman for the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental group that sued for the designation. "If you are proposing a project anywhere from the Canadian border to Big Sur, you have to take southern resident killer whales into account."
The whales hunt salmon in a vast range, stretching from the Salish Sea to Southern California. But these fish are increasingly scarce because of factors including climate change and habitat loss, according to supporting documentation for the designation and other recent research.
In a double punch, the habitats most altered by people are also home to some of the most intense effects of climate change. Salmon runs in the whales' most southern ranges and salmon migrating long distances struggle to survive.
The proposed designation comes after six orcas have died since 2018. There are 73 left, the lowest number for the orcas that frequent Puget Sound since they were hunted and captured for theme parks in the 1960s and '70s.
Lack of food -- in addition to vessel noise and disturbance and pollution -- is a critical challenge to the whales' survival.
The designation builds on years of research since the 2006 designation and marks a significant recognition by the federal government of the whales' coast-wide range.