Springtime protections for a dwindling population of orcas struggling to reproduce in one of North America’s most crowded waterways will be a critical moment for the animals’ survival, conservationists said.
The Southern Resident killer whales, a clan of 74 that lives in the waters around Vancouver and Seattle, have reached a crisis point after decades of human pressure, spurring Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans to propose greater restrictions on human activity in their habitat, Misty MacDuffee, a program director at the Raincoast Conservation Foundation, told Bloomberg Environment Nov. 15.
“All the evidence suggests that we’re losing the reproductive capacity of this population and the measures that we have identified to date have not been or are not adequate to halt the decline in this population, so the measures that are put forward this year have to be more than the measures of the past,” MacDuffee said.
The government and the environmental groups agree that the two most pressing threats to the whales are ship traffic and a lack of prey in foraging and migration areas.
Steps in Place by April
Fisheries and Oceans Minister Jonathan Wilkinson announced eight protection measures with a price tag of C$61.5 million ($46.7 million) that will have to be finished by April, when the whales return to Canadian waters.
Environmental groups plan to work closely with Fisheries and Oceans over the winter to make sure the announced measures are effective.
“We’re encouraged that there appears to be an opening to have our scientists sit as some very action-oriented tables,” said Jay Ritchlin, director general for British Columbia and western region at the David Suzuki Foundation.
The moves come after Canada’s federal Cabinet decided Nov. 1 against using a fast-tracking mechanism—known as an emergency protection order—to protect the whales. That order, sought by environmental groups, would have allowed the federal government to override other legislation and regulation.
Instead, Fisheries and Oceans says the bulk of the measures it announced will be ready by the spring. Conservationists claim some of the measures announced rely on legislation to pass or the introduction of new regulations, which would push their implementation past that time.
“The path we’re on is actually a more effective path than you could have accomplished by issuing an emergency protection order,” Wilkinson said in an interview with Bloomberg Environment on Nov. 13.
An emergency protection order is a poor tool for the whales’ situation partly because a solution depends on close collaboration with Washington state, especially when it comes to changing ship traffic, Wilkinson said.
Around 47 of the whales—more than half the current population—were captured for display in aquariums in the 1960s, and recovery efforts since then have been hampered by a myriad set of threats, particularly ship noise and a lack of prey. Researchers at the University of Washington in 2017 found that 69 percent of pregnancies failed between 2007 and 2014 and no calf has survived to adulthood since 2015.
Environmental Groups Want More
The David Suzuki Foundation wants Canada to go further and is calling for the closure of commercial and recreational Chinook fisheries in southern British Columbia around the mouths of the Fraser and Columbia Rivers, particularly from late spring to early fall.
That should be coupled with banning vessel traffic in particular areas as well, Ritchlin said. That would have to be coordinated with Washington state.
A Southern Resident killer whales task force is also expected to deliver recommendations to Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) on Nov. 16.
Inslee will address the recommendations when his office rolls out its budget and policy priorities in mid-December, spokesperson Tara Lee told Bloomberg Environment on Nov. 14.
Canada Drags Its Feet
A bill that would grant Wilkinson the power to create marine protected areas is before the Senate, while the federal government introduced legislative amendments that would reduce noise impacts on whales as recently as late October.
Conservationists point to Canada’s long history of dragging its feet on protecting the whales as a reason to be leery of the government’s schedule.
This past summer, Canada expanded the minimum distance whale-watching vessels must maintain with whales to 200 meters, eight years after the regulation had been first proposed within government, said Michael Jasny, director of marine mammal protection at the Natural Resources Defense Council.
“There’s a reason for skepticism,” Jasny said.
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