News

January 30, 2018

B.C. conservation groups seek emergency protection for southern resident killer whales

News Source: Vancouver Sun
Author: Randy Shore

Emergency action is needed under the Species at Risk Act to halt and reverse the decline of endangered, salmon-eating killer whales in B.C. waters, according to a coalition of conservation groups.

The Raincoast Conservation Foundation, the David Suzuki Foundation and others are petitioning the federal government to curtail sport fishing and whale watching in feeding areas essential to the survival of the orcas and to restrict fishing on specific Chinook salmon populations that sustain the southern resident killer whales.

Commercial shipping traffic should also be slowed down as the vessels pass critical feeding areas to limit acoustic interference that hampers the orcas’ ability to locate and catch prey, they say.

The southern residents are a genetically and culturally distinct population that feed on salmon, rather than on marine mammals.

There are only 76 members of the southern resident group left, down from 83 two years ago, according to the Center for Whale Research in Washington state.

“These animals have been listed under the Species at Risk Act (SARA) since 2003 and so far the federal government has done nothing to reduce the threats that actually face these whales,” said Misty MacDuffee, Wild Salmon program director at the Raincoast Conservation Foundation. “We’ve gotten to the point where urgent action is needed.”

The southern resident group is listed as “endangered” under SARA.

It would be enough if the government simply implemented its own Resident Killer Whale Action Planreleased last year, the groups say. The detailed federal plan aims to ensure access to food, reduce disturbance due to human activities, protect whales from pollution and protect critical habitat for northern and southern resident killer whales.

Federal marine scientists have several research projects underway — bankrolled by the $1.5-billion Oceans Protection Plan — to better understand the health of the southern residents, their foraging habits and the acoustic impact of small vessels.

“The federal government has invested a lot in understanding these issues, but that have done nothing to actually reduce the threat,” said MacDuffee. “They’ve done lots of research, they hold symposiums, they are saying good things, but they have been saying this for some time and done nothing.”

The petition calls for restrictions on fisheries that target south-migrating Chinook salmon, the southern residents’ favourite food.

“We are asking to reduce Chinook fisheries on populations that are important to southern residents and that are on their way to critical (orca) habitat and foraging areas,” she said.

Foraging areas along southwest Vancouver Island, Boundary Pass and the approaches to the Fraser River should be closed to recreational salmon fishing and whale watching, they say.

“There are 14 to 28 whale-watching boats following those whales every day when they enter the Salish Sea for summer feeding,” MacDuffee said.

Fisheries Minister Dominic Leblanc announced in October that special restrictions of 200 metres would soon apply to southern resident killer whales, reflecting their precarious status, and putting Canada in line with a 200-yard ban applied by the U.S.

“There are about 55,000 boat trips a year by recreational fishing vessels that are targeting Chinook and the boats are so dense that the whales can’t access the fish,” MacDuffee said. “Those are their prime feeding areas.”