Feds’ fisheries announcement a welcome first step: groups renew call for killer whale emergency order

Federal Ministers are now legally obligated to recommend that the federal Cabinet issue emergency protections for the whales.

Five Southern Resident killer whales swim side by side in the Salish Sea.

Photo by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and Vancouver Aquarium.

Conservation groups are applauding today’s announcement from Minister of Fisheries and Oceans Dominic LeBlanc and Minister of Environment and Climate Change Catherine McKenna that endangered Southern Resident killer whales face “imminent threats” to their survival and recovery. Prompted by this assessment, the Ministers also announced immediate fisheries closures in key Southern Resident foraging areas.

Faced with declining populations of Chinook salmon, their primary source of food, the Southern Residents are suffering nutritional stress and are at serious risk of malnutrition and starvation — making today’s announcement welcome news.

In January, Ecojustice — on behalf of Raincoast Conservation Foundation, David Suzuki Foundation, Georgia Strait Alliance, Natural Resources Defense Council, and World Wildlife Fund Canada — petitioned the Ministers for emergency protection for the whales under the federal Species at Risk Act.

Only 76 members of the population remain and no successful births have been documented since 2015.  Tweet This!

Today’s announcement responds to that request. It also means that the ministers are now legally obligated to recommend that the federal Cabinet issue emergency protections for the whales, the groups say.

“Now that the ministers have officially declared threats to the Southern Resident killer whales’ recovery ‘imminent,’ the law is black and white. The Species at Risk Act requires that the Ministers recommend an emergency order to protect these endangered whales,” said Dyna Tuytel, lawyer at Ecojustice.

Under Section 80 of the Species at Risk Act, emergency orders empower the government to take a broad range of actions to protect a species and its habitat when it faces imminent threats to its survival or recovery.

Southern Resident killer whales are a genetically and culturally-distinct population of salmon-eating whales who hunt, socialize and raise their young in the Salish Sea, a region that includes the Juan de Fuca Strait, Georgia Strait, and Puget Sound.

While the measures announced today partially address concerns over orca prey availability, further action is still required to fully protect the orcas against the three main threats they face: reduced availability of Chinook salmon, acoustic and physical disturbance from vessels, which interferes with their ability to hunt and communicate, and pollution. For example, the groups say whale watching should be restricted in key orca foraging areas.

“Protecting chinook salmon foraging areas Southern Resident killer whales depend on is critical. After years of inaction, I look forward to expanding the desperately needed safeguards. We need to protect key foraging areas the government missed, and ensure a minimum number of chinook salmon return to spawn,” said Jeffery Young, Senior Science and Policy Analyst at David Suzuki Foundation.

Only 76 members of the population remain and no successful births have been documented since 2015. Lacking protective safeguards, the likelihood of the Southern Residents becoming extinct is high because their population size is small and their critical habitat in the Salish Sea has been degraded.

“The Trudeau government has finally acknowledged that multiple human caused threats to Canada’s endangered Southern Resident killer whales place the whale population in imminent danger, seriously jeopardizing their continuing survival and recovery. We now expect that comprehensive and effective regulatory actions to protect the whales will be immediately forthcoming,” said Dr. Paul Paquet, Senior Scientist, Raincoast Conservation Foundation.

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