Emergency order for Southern Residents under the Species at Risk Act

In May, the federal government concluded Southern Resident killer whales face imminent threats to their survival and recovery, requiring a response under the Species at Risk Act. Five organizations — the David Suzuki Foundation, Georgia Strait Alliance, the Natural Resources Defence Council, Raincoast Conservation Foundation and WWF Canada — petitioned the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans and Minister of the Environment and Climate Change through Ecojustice to recommend an emergency order to protect the whales. The petition identified measures including the creation of feeding refuges closed to fishing, rebuilding depleted Chinook populations, limits to whale-watching, and regulatory measures to address underwater noise from shipping. In addition to immediate measures on Chinook fishing and whale watching outlined above, these measures must be in place by next year.

Rather than recommend an emergency order, the ministers took limited and inadequate steps such as implementing fisheries closures in some of the whales’ foraging areas and clarifying that commercial and recreational whale watchers must stay 200 metres from killer whales. These actions were not supported by adequate enforcement or monitoring, and the other actions announced are voluntary, research-oriented, yet to begin and/or lack specific timelines.

The science

Studies indicate the whales had a 25 to 50 per cent risk of extinction by the end of the century under conditions that were present prior to 2014. These conditions have worsened since 2014. Between 2008 and 2014, nearly 70 per cent of detected pregnancies failed due to nutritional stress associated with lack of prey.

Research by an international team of scientists, including Raincoast staff, showed that a modelled 30 per cent increase in the coast-wide Chinook abundance above the 1979-2008 average could increase southern resident growth rate by as much as 1.9 per cent (Lacy et al., 2017). When noise and disturbance are addressed along with Chinook abundance, population viability modelling shows that a 15 per cent increase in the coast-wide abundance, coupled with a 50 per cent reduction in vessel noise and disturbance, can meet the U.S. recovery target of 2.3 per cent annual growth (based on SRKW demographics to 2014, Lacy et al. 2017).

Source: Lacy, R.C., R. Williams, E. Ashe, K.C. Balcomb, L.J. N. Brent, C.W. Clark, D.P. Croft, D.A. Giles, M. MacDuffee and P.C. Paquet. 2017. Evaluating anthropogenic threats to endangered killer whales to inform effective recovery plans. Scientific Reports 7, Article no: 14119 doi:10.1038/s41598-017-14471-0

Whale watching

Over the past two decades, 14 to 28 boats routinely followed southern residents in the summer months, with peak numbers exceeding 70 boats (see Ashe et al. 2010, Soundwatch 2016). The presence and noise from these vessels reduces foraging activity and limit the whales’ ability to acquire prey (Lusseau et al. 2009, Noren et al. 2009, Williams et al. 2014, Lacy et al. 2017, Holt et al. 2017).

Vessel traffic and noise is known to increase the duration and amplitude of calls and is likely to adversely affect the whales by masking and altering vital communication calls.

Chinook fishery closures

  • Poor returns of most Chinook salmon, and the need for Chinook by nutrionally stressed whales, warrants the closure of marine Chinook fisheries so endangered whales have priority access to food.
  • Monitoring of the recreational fishery is too limited to effectively manage reducing the number of fish each fisher is allowed to take. Only a full closure will ensure adequate enforcement.
  • A Chinook recovery plan that includes habitat restoration is needed to restore wild Chinook salmon abundance at the population level.
  • Hatcheries are not an effective rebuilding tool because they generally bring more harm than beneift to wild salmon. Hatcheries are not a substitute for rebuilding wild Chinook populations to feed whales, which is what is needed now.
  • Feeding refuges should be expanded and apply to all other fishing to ensure these whales have the space they need to forage and are sheltered from vessel disturbance so that they can catch their prey.

You can help

Raincoast’s in-house scientists, collaborating graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and professors make us unique among conservation groups. We work with First Nations, academic institutions, government, and other NGOs to build support and inform decisions that protect aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems, and the wildlife that depend on them. We conduct ethically applied, process-oriented, and hypothesis-driven research that has immediate and relevant utility for conservation deliberations and the collective body of scientific knowledge.

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Coastal wolf with a salmon in its month.
Photo by Dene Rossouw.