New measures will address threats of vessel noise, pollution, and a shortage of chinook salmon, that the remaining 75 southern resident killer whales are facing.
By Fabian Dawson
A coalition of six conservation groups is hailing the efforts by the federal government to protect southern resident killer whales with new sanctuaries, salmon fisheries closures and no-go zones for whale watching boats.
The coalition said the new measures will address the threats of vessel noise, pollution and a shortage of chinook salmon, the remaining 75 southern resident killer whales, face.
Announcing the new measures, Jonathan Wilkinson, Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard said the federal government has formally recognized that these whales face imminent threats to survival and recovery.
“We understand that saving these iconic mammals requires comprehensive and immediate action,” he said.
The new measures for 2019 include:
• area-based closures for recreational and commercial salmon fisheries in several key foraging areas, and the pilot implementation of a voluntary bubble in the vicinity of killer whales. The focus of prey-related initiatives is on ensuring there is sufficient food for the Southern Resident killer whales to remain healthy. Further, to increase the abundance of Chinook salmon, the primary prey for these whales, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) has committed to releasing an additional 1 million juvenile Chinook annually from Chilliwack Hatchery for five years to support Southern Resident killer whale recovery. These particular Chinook stocks are important for Southern Resident Killer Whales and are available in the whales’ critical habitat year-round.
• In partnership with the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority’s ECHO program, commercial vessels will be asked to slow down over a longer distance through Haro Strait and Boundary Pass, starting as early as June 1. Inshore traffic will be asked to transit further from shore in the Strait of Juan de Fuca. As of June 1, vessels throughout the critical habitat of the Southern Resident killer whale, including recreational boats and whale watching vessels, will be required to stay at least 400 metres away from all killer whales, with exception for commercial whale watching companies who have obtained authorization from the Minister of Transport, who would be allowed to approach Transient killer whales up to 200 metres. Vessels are also asked to reduce their speed to less than 7 knots if they are within 1,000 metres of killer whales in certain areas, and to turn off their echo sounders and turn engines to neutral idle if a whale is within 400 metres.
• To maximize protections in three key foraging areas, interim sanctuary zones will be created off Pender Island, Saturna Island and at Swiftsure Bank. In addition to fishery closures, no vessel traffic will be permitted in these areas from June 1 to October 31, subject to certain exceptions for emergency and Indigenous vessels.
The government also announced enhanced regulatory controls for five key persistent organic pollutants (flame retardants, oil and gas repellents) and the prohibition of two toxic flame retardants, to further reduce contaminants affecting whales and their prey.
“Given the plight of 75 remaining Southern Residents, these measures are a necessary step to help the endangered population survive,” the coalition of six conservation groups said in a statement.
“We will be following their rollout closely to ensure these measures are fully implemented with adequate monitoring and enforcement,” the group said.
The coalition comprising The David Suzuki Foundation, Ecojustice, Georgia Strait Alliance, Natural Resources Defense Council, Raincoast Conservation Foundation and WWF-Canada have been advocating for urgent and concrete actions since January 2018 when they petitioned the federal government to issue an emergency order under the Species At Risk Act.
Representatives of the environmental groups addressed various issues around the new measures in a joint statement. Here is what they said;
Chinook salmon: Misty MacDuffee, Wild Salmon Program Director, Raincoast Conservation Foundation:
“Chinook salmon are key to killer whale recovery. DFO’s measures reduce competition with salmon fishing in some areas, and will begin rebuilding the endangered Chinook runs the whales need to feed on in the spring and early summer.”
Protecting salmon foraging areas: Jeffery Young, Senior Science and Policy Analyst, David Suzuki Foundation:
“Southern Resident orcas are in the Salish Sea to find and eat Chinook salmon. These measures will help these whales get the food they need to survive.”
Reducing noise from large vessels: Hussein Alidina, Lead Specialist Ocean Conservation, WWF Canada:
“The commercial vessel slowdown will help reduce overall noise exposure to southern residents and make it more viable for them to hunt salmon this year. We welcome this multi-year commitment by industry and government in the conservation agreement to undertake slowdowns. Significant and sustained reductions in noise levels from shipping will be needed to aid in the recovery of these whales.”
Restrictions on whale-watching: Michael Jasny, Director, Marine Mammal Protection, Natural Resources Defense Council:
“Bringing back salmon is paramount. But the restrictions on whale-watching announced today would give the whales the break they need from a constant parade of boats that has made it hard for them to feed.”
No-go zones in feeding areas: Tessa Danelesko, Species Protection Coordinator, Georgia Strait Alliance:
“Removing threats from areas where Southern Resident killer whales frequent to find prey, by using foraging areas and no-go zones, supports this endangered population by giving them the disturbance-free conditions they need to find sufficient food to eat. These measures are a step toward a healthier Salish Sea.”
Biodiversity crisis and the law: Olivia French, lawyer, Ecojustice:
“The UN’s stark report on the world’s biodiversity crisis, released earlier this week, made it clear that governments around the world must take transformative action to prevent species collapse. Southern Resident killer whales are among the one million species at risk of extinction now. Ecojustice is encouraged by the suite of measures the federal government introduced today, especially where those measures are legally enforceable.” (image courtesy of Port of Vancouver)