(The Canadian Press)

Ottawa adds to protections for endangered southern resident killer whales

Areas of the Juan de Fuca Strait and Southern Gulf Islands will be closed for recreational and commercial salmon fisheries

Expanded protections for endangered southern resident killer whales off British Columbia’s coast focus on contaminants, noise, physical disturbances and accessibility of chinook salmon, the orca’s primary prey.

The actions announced by several government departments Thursday include a ban on tourist or whale watching vessels with over 12 passengers until the end of June, a measure aimed at preventing the spread of COVID-19.

Areas of the Juan de Fuca Strait and Southern Gulf Islands will be closed for recreational and commercial salmon fisheries, with specific dates announced in June, the federal government said.

All fish harvesters are being asked to voluntarily stop fishing within 1,000 metres of orcas in B.C. waters.

Interim sanctuary zones established last year for the whales off Pender and Saturna islands will be back up from June 1 to the end of November, a month longer than 2019.

Fisheries and Oceans says the population of the southern residents has fluctuated between 70 and 99 whales since 1976, and their small population size and lack of calves means the unique family of orcas is “facing imminent threats to their survival and recovery.”

ALSO READ: Southern resident killer whale died of blunt trauma, likely from ship

Andrew Trites, the director of the marine mammal research unit at the University of British Columbia, said the orcas are in real trouble.

“Particularly with having so few births, having so few females in the population, having had a couple males dominate breeding, and then just all the added pressures put on the environment,” said Trites, pointing to ocean noise, dwindling fish stocks and the warming ocean.

No vessels will be permitted in sanctuary areas with the exceptions of emergency and Indigenous vessels, while boats are also prohibited from coming within 400 metres of any killer whale starting June 1, the federal government said.

There is an exception to that rule in place for whale watching and tourism companies that receive federal authorization, allowing them to view all whales except southern residents from 200 metres.

Vessels are also asked to reduce their speed within 1,000 metres of a whale and turn engines to neutral if a whale is within 400 metres, a measure the government said is in place year-round.

Officially, there are 73 southern residents, but the Centre for Whale Research in Washington state said the most prolific male is missing and presumed deceased.

The federal government said a technical working group has identified and compiled guidelines for key contaminants affecting whales and their prey.

Terry Beech, a Burnaby MP and parliamentary secretary for the minister of fisheries, said the government has taken unprecedented steps to protect the southern resident population over four years.

“We’ve shown how far we’re willing to go, and if there are measures that we can continue to take to protect this iconic species, all options are certainly on the table.”

Beech said more decisions about the chinook fishery will be made in the coming weeks.

Trites said it’s good to see the government take steps to create more favourable conditions for the endangered orcas.

The orcas haven’t been seen in the Salish Sea the way they once were, he said.

ALSO WATCH: Conservation groups sue Ottawa to protect endangered killer whales

“It’s not clear if the whales have seen the memo of all the changes that the government has put in place to make things better for them,” he quipped.

The whales’ range extends south to California, and Trites said all jurisdictions must take action to ensure their survival.

“So much attention is focused on just the Salish Sea. It’s like trying to save migratory birds by only protecting the bird feeder in your backyard.”

He said it’s not clear why southern residents are faring worse than their northern cousins, whose range extends from waters in B.C. to southeastern Alaska.

The northern residents, with four-times the population, may be getting ”first dibs” on salmon returning to the ocean from coastal B.C., said Trites, adding the southern residents’ habitat is also more industrialized.

With fewer vessels and noise in the water due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Trites said there’s some hope that scientists will be able to observe a change in behaviour and gain insight into what’s been affecting the whales.

Brenna Owen, The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism during the pandemic? Make a donation here.

Southern Resident Killer Whales

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

A second wave of COVID-19 is probable, if history tells us anything

B.C.’s top doctor says that what health officials have learned this round will guide response in future

Council talks trash: New garbage bylaw in the works

Draft bylaw to be voted on at Monday, May 25 council meeting

UPDATE: Police oversight agency investigating after shots fired Saturday night in Chilliwack neighbourhood

RCMP reported a ‘distraught male’ fired at police officers on Christina Drive – IIO is on scene Sunday

Prospera Credit Union, Westminster Savings lay off over 100 staff following historic merge

2020 merger was largest credit-union merger in Canadian history

‘Service beyond the classroom’: Gerry Palmer wins UFV award

Palmer has been involved with UFV for more than 30 years, starting as an instructor

LIVE: Procession to honour Snowbirds Capt. Jennifer Casey comes to Halifax

Snowbirds service member died in a crash in Kamloops one week ago

RCMP facing ‘systemic sustainability challenges’ due to provincial policing role

Provinces, territories and municipalities pay anywhere from 70 to 90 per cent of the cost of the RCMP’s services

‘Not a joke’: Promoter wants to rocket-launch man the length of White Rock pier

Brooke Colby says he’s building an eight-foot rocket in his backyard

RCMP confirm man dead in Chilliwack shooting incident

The Independent Investigations Office of B.C. is investigating the RCMP’s role in the death

B.C. employers worry about safety, cash flow, second wave in COVID-19 restart

A survey found 75 per cent of businesses worry about attracting customers

Ex-BC Greens leader Andrew Weaver says province came close to early election

Disagreement centred on the LNG Canada project in northern B.C.

Canada’s NHL teams offer options to season-ticket holders

Canadian teams are offering refunds, but also are pushing a number of incentives to let them keep the money

Boy, 2, left with ‘soft tissue injuries’ after being hit by car in Squamish intersection

Boy was release from hospital, police continue to investigate

B.C. premier says lessons to learn from past racism during response to pandemic

B.C. formally apologized in the legislature chamber in 2008 for its role in the Komagata Maru tragedy

Most Read