SEATTLE — A conservation group wants the federal government to move forward with protecting offshore areas along the U.S. West Coast to help endangered killer whales.
The Center for Biological Diversity told the National Marine Fisheries Service on Wednesday that it plans to take legal action if the agency keeps delaying a designation for offshore habitat where the Puget Sound orcas would be protected.
The fish-eating whales typically spend summers in inland waters of Washington state and winters foraging along the coast. They have struggled with food shortages, pollution, and noise and disturbances from boats. There are now just 76 of the animals, a 30-year low.
Most inland waters of Washington state, including Puget Sound and the waters around the San Juan Islands, received protection as critical whale habitat in 2006. Coastal and offshore areas in the Pacific Ocean weren't included at that time.
In 2014, the conservation group petitioned the fisheries service to expand habitat protection. It asked the agency to add an area from Cape Flattery, Washington, to Point Reyes, California, extending about 47 miles (76 kilometers) offshore.
Satellite tagging surveys have shown that the whales forage for food along the coast in the winter, some traveling down to Northern California.
The fisheries service said in 2015 that it would move ahead with revising the orcas' critical habitat and collecting and analyzing more data to develop a rule in 2017.
The group said in its letter Wednesday that the agency is violating U.S. law by not taking action in a reasonable time to protect habitat for the population of southern resident killer whales.
"The southern residents desperately need protected foraging areas full of salmon to feed them through the winter," Catherine Kilduff, an attorney and marine scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity said in a statement. "Without swift federal action, these whales will continue their steep slide to extinction."
Michael Milstein, a spokesman for NOAA Fisheries, said the agency is moving as quickly as it can and that the work remains a high priority.
He said the agency has been gathering data, including tracking the whales' winter movements and reviewing the science.
"As much as we'd like to do it fast, we have to take the time to do it right," Milstein added.
Meanwhile, a taskforce convened by Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee in March is coming up with recommendations at the regional, state and federal level to save the whales. A final report is due in November.