Government declares “imminent threat” to survival of Southern Resident killer whales

While welcome news in terms of waiting a decade for measures that reduce threats to these whales, the measures announced by the federal government only partially address our concerns over food availability and disturbance to the whales.

Southern Resident killer whales: J2 (right) and juvenile J45 (left) chasing a salmon.

Photo by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Southern Resident killer whales: J2 (right) and juvenile J45 (left) chasing a salmon.

Early in 2018, our lawyers at Ecojustice petitioned the federal ministers responsible for the recovery of Southern Resident killer whales for emergency protection under Canada’s Species at Risk Act. We did this with our partners at the David Suzuki Foundation, Georgia Strait Alliance, Natural Resources Defense Council, and World Wildlife Fund Canada. In May, the federal government announced that the population faces ‘imminent threat’ to their survival – a legal component of SARA that obligates the government to act given the heightened risk of extinction. Last week, the government announced fisheries closures in some of the key Southern Resident foraging areas.

While welcome news in terms of waiting a decade for measures that reduce threats to these whales, the measures announced by the federal government only partially address our concerns over food availability and disturbance to the whales. The areas closed to recreational fisheries did not include a large section of the key foraging area recommended for closure by killer whale scientists. Further, DFO’s reductions to the Chinook (spring salmon) catch are not intended to increase food for whales; they are simply a response to the fact that Chinook in southern BC face a crisis.

As such, DFO’s catch reductions don’t go far enough. They are not designed to ensure that weak populations rebuild or that a minimum number of Chinook salmon reach their spawning grounds. Raincoast has seen no analysis that indicates DFO will achieve the 25-35% reduction in catch they strive for. Even though the area closures for whales don’t allow fishing, they don’t reduce the total catch or effort. There are many places adjacent to the closures that allow fishing and have no reductions in bag limits over previous years.

The closures in key feeding areas also need to exclude whale watching in order to reduce noise and disturbance from boats. It is not enough (nor fair) to exclude fisheries from these areas but allow whale watching from vessels in close proximity to Southern Residents to continue. Vessel noise and disturbance make it hard for killer whales to hear, communicate and catch salmon.

Southern Resident killer whales are endangered because of declining Chinook salmon stocks, physical and acoustic disturbance from vessel traffic that affects their ability to catch salmon, high amounts of contaminants in those salmon, and a decade of inaction by the federal government to reduce these threats. They are also a small population that is vulnerable to random events such as food shortages, disease or oil spills, that cause mortality. With only 76 whales, the loss of individuals (especially females) can have dire consequences.

Last fall, in collaboration with an international team of scientists, Raincoast published a study in the journal Scientific Reports that examined the fate of Southern Resident killer whales under existing threats, and under scenarios where those threats improve or worsen.

We found that under existing conditions, killer whales are on a slow slide to extinction due to an ocean that is polluted, has too few Chinook salmon, and too much vessel traffic. We also examined the fate of whales if the Trans Mountain Expansion – and its accompanying seven fold increase in tanker traffic- were to be built. We found that even without an oil spill, the noise alone from the increase in tanker traffic substantially increased the likelihood of extinction.

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Encouragingly, our modelling analysis also showed that if noise and disturbance were reduced, and salmon abundance increased, Southern Residents could recover. In fact, the risk of extinction could almost be eliminated with 15% more Chinook and 50% less noise. Both of these are achievable; but not under scenarios where the federal government increases shipping -whether oil tankers or freighters -through the Salish Sea.

In May, the Canadian federal government announced its $4.5 billion purchase of the Trans Mountain pipeline. Regardless of who owns Trans Mountain, the question remains as to whether the approval of the proposed pipeline expansion was even lawful. It is Raincoast’s contention in ongoing litigation that it was not and that the NEB and federal cabinet violated the Species at Risk Act when they approved the project.

We remain fully committed to protecting Southern Resident killer whales and ensuring government takes all the steps identified in our emergency order to enable their recovery. We have the government’s attention but we need your support to keep up the pressure and not accept half measures.

Our research tells us we can make a difference for these whales. Thank you for believing we can be that difference.

Profile photo of Misty MacDuffee from out in the field.

Misty MacDuffee

Misty is a biologist and the Program Director of Raincoast’s Wild Salmon Program. Her most recent publication, with co-authors at the Wild Fish Conservancy and University of Montana, describes a framework for certifying salmon fisheries based on a much higher bar than is currently in use. She is dedicated to the long term survival of finned, furred, and feathered creatures.

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