(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

Salmon Arm RCMP recover stolen property near Lyman Hill

One person arrested, officers appear to be searching side of Highway 1

Salmon Arm to hold two peaceful protests in solidarity with Black Lives Matter

June 4 and 6 protests to fight for justice for victims of police brutality, against systemic racism

Vehicle stolen in Revelstoke recovered near Salmon Arm after occupants suffer overdoses

Police say they were alerted to the vehicle after occupants treated by ambulance after drug use

Transport truck driver walks away from crash where cab detaches from trailer

Driver won’t be charged regarding incident near Pritchard

Sicamous RCMP catch driver going twice the speed limit

The car was impounded for seven days and the driver received a hefty fine

WATCH: North Okanagan golf cart stolen, then returned

Homeowners have footage of two men taking the cart and then bringing it back

Police watchdog investigating fatal crash in Kelowna

Kelowna RCMP received a report of a single-vehicle collision on Bulman Road near Highway 97 on June 1

Kelowna council greenlights ‘The Wedge’

The wedge-shaped building will be built at the corner of Leon Avenue and Water Street

Province looks to seize Kelowna home owned by alleged drug trafficker

Michelle Collins and Nigel Byrne were also recently investigated by Kelowna RCMP for drug trafficking

22 new COVID-19 test-positives, one death following days of low case counts in B.C.

Health officials urged British Columbians to ‘stand together while staying apart’

John Horgan says COVID-19 restrictions won’t be eased regionally

B.C. Liberals urge ‘tailored’ response based on infections

Highway 1 closed after body found near Hope

Coroners Service reportedly on the scene, highway has been closed for 10 hours in both directions

Feds get failing grade for lack of action plan on anniversary of MMIWG report

‘Instead of a National Action Plan, we have been left with a Lack-of-Action Plan’

Most Read