Crisis situation for endangered killer whales needs emergency response

Conservation groups call for Chinook fisheries closures and whale-watching restrictions for southern residents.

VANCOUVER — Critically endangered southern resident killer whales now require immediate closure of Chinook fisheries on B.C.’s coast and closure of all whale watching, according to the David Suzuki Foundation and the Raincoast Conservation Foundation.

“If an orca mother’s prolonged display of grief and signs of starvation among J-pod don’t inspire action, what will? We’re in a crisis situation that requires an emergency response,” said Jay Ritchlin, Western Canada director general for the David Suzuki Foundation.

Scientists and reviews by Fisheries and Oceans Canada agree that the biggest threat to the whales is a lack of abundance of and access to Chinook salmon, their favoured prey. The groups are calling on Minister of Fisheries and Oceans Jonathan Wilkinson to immediately close recreational and commercial marine Chinook fisheries. The closure will make more Chinook available to whales and will help the salmon return to their streams of origin to reproduce and ultimately rebuild. It is seen as the most effective way to reduce nutritional stress, improve birth rates and survival and reduce deaths for the southern residents.

“Recent events with J-pod, one of the three southern resident pods, has underscored the dire plight of these whales. What should be a healthy population of killer whales is failing to successfully feed, grow and reproduce. Given the federal government’s failure to implement adequate threat reduction, we are calling for a closure of marine, commercial and recreational Chinook fisheries. This is the whales’ best chance for survival,” said Misty MacDuffee, biologist and wild salmon program director with Raincoast Conservation Foundation. As of August 2018, there have been no successful births in three years for the southern residents.

There is also a call for a closure of recreational and commercial whale watching that targets the endangered whales. “New distance regulations don’t go far enough to limit disturbance to these whales as they forage for prey. We must limit vessel disturbance so there’s a possibility that future generations will also be able to experience these whales,” Ritchlin said.

The only exceptions to the full marine Chinook fishery closures would be for fisheries outside of the range of the whales and closer to spawning grounds that can demonstrate they are meeting biologically defined wild Chinook escapement targets (i.e., enough fish are returning to spawning grounds to replenish the stocks adequately).

Wild Chinook populations are in trouble. Those returning to the Fraser River before July have collapsed and 86 per cent of wild conservation units, a measurement for populations, in southern B.C. are at risk. B.C. fisheries also catch a number of endangered U.S.-bound Chinook salmon that are important to southern resident killer whales. Similar actions restricting fisheries and whale watching are also needed on the U.S. side of the border.

There is no rebuilding plan for the many highly depleted wild B.C. Chinook populations. Scientific evidence shows that artificial production of Chinook salmon, through operations such as hatcheries, can harm wild Chinook and are not suitable for rebuilding stocks.

Funding enforcement and monitoring of whale-protection measures is also needed, according to the organizations, which referred to steps taken by the government so far as partial and inadequate, voluntary, yet to begin and/or lacking timelines.

Between 1.5 and 2 million Chinook salmon are caught each year by Canadian and U.S. fisheries under the Pacific Salmon Treaty. The southern resident population requires about 1,400 Chinook each day to stay alive.