The National Marine Fisheries Service proposed a recovery plan Tuesday for Puget Sound's endangered population of killer whales, including new research, better coordination with other government agencies, and cleanup and closer monitoring of polluted sites.
The federal agency listed three primary threats scientists believe have likely led to the decline of the so-called "southern resident" population of orcas: pollution, disruption by vessel traffic and decreased availability of prey.
The fisheries service said its goals will include supporting salmon restoration efforts, cleaning up contaminated sites in Puget Sound, working to reduce pollution, evaluating and improving guidelines for vessel traffic in and around protected areas, and preventing oil spills and improving response plans should spills occur.
In a separate move, the fisheries service announced its final designation of critical habitat for the endangered whales — an area covering about 25,000 square miles, encompassing part of Haro Strait and the waters around the San Juan Islands, the Strait of Juan de Fuca and all of Puget Sound.
Federal agencies must now consult with the fisheries service to make sure their actions will not harm the whales' habitat. Eighteen military sites covering nearly 112 square miles of orca habitat have been excluded from the critical habitat area.
Environmental groups welcomed the recovery plan as a step forward and said they were happy that most inland waters will be designated as critical habitat, but said they were troubled that some areas have been excluded, among them the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary, Hood Canal and shallow waters.
Fred Felleman, Northwest director of the marine conservation group Ocean Advocates, said southern resident orcas spend close to half their life in waters that aren't included in the plan.
"We're disappointed that key areas are excluded from the critical habitat designation, and that the recovery plan does not effectively address the toxic chemicals that are poisoning the population," Kathy Fletcher, executive director of People for Puget Sound, said in a statement.
Unique in diet, language and genetic makeup, southern residents were listed as endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act in late 2005.
Once believed to have numbered 140 or more in the last century, they have suffered several major periods of decline since the 1960s, when the whales were caught for aquariums. The population rebounded to 97 in the 1990s, then declined to 79 in 2001.
The fisheries service estimated the population now numbers 91, though the latest population count provided by conservation groups including People for Puget Sound and Ocean Advocates was 87.