VANCOUVER – The federal government is closing some recreational and commercial chinook fisheries on the West Coast in an effort to help save endangered southern resident killer whales.
Fisheries Minister Dominic LeBlanc said Thursday that a lack of prey for the whales is one of the critical factors affecting their recovery.
Southern residents inhabit the waters from south and central Vancouver Island all the way to northern California where they hunt for the salmon.
There are just 76 of the whales left and LeBlanc said in a news release that a reduction in the total chinook fishery of 25 to 35 per cent will help conserve the orca’s main food source.
The closures will be in the Juan de Fuca Strait and around portions of the Gulf Islands, the department said in the release.
There will also be partial closures at the mouth of the Fraser River to protect key foraging areas for the whales.
The federal government also announced that over $9.5 million will be spent on eight projects across B.C. to help restore chinook habitat.
Environment Minister Catherine McKenna said the species faces imminent threats to its survival and recovery, and the government needs to take concrete action.
“These iconic and awe-inspiring whales are cherished by Canadians across the country and visitors alike, and protecting them is essential to keeping our oceans healthy and dynamic — not just for today, but to ensure we leave a rich natural legacy to our kids and grandkids,” she said.
The population, which is made up of three separate pods, was diminished significantly in the 1960s and ’70s when about 47 of the whales were captured and relocated to aquariums. Previous studies have found that acoustic and physical disturbances, along with pollution also play a role in threatening the population.
The Fisheries Department said the whales are listed as an endangered species in both Canada and the United States.
Owen Bird, executive director of the Sport Fishing Institute of British Columbia, said the announcement lacked enough detail for him to be sure how it would affect his members. It wasn’t clear how the fishery reduction would be achieved, or the nature and size of the closures, he said.
He said he was surprised by the government’s assertion that lack of prey was one of the critical factors affecting the whales’ recovery.
“I don’t know that that’s something that science has indicated is absolutely one of the factors. It certainly could be a part of the issue,” he said.
“There are other factors that could play more or less of a role. … There’s noise, interference, access to prey.”
Jeffery Young, a senior scientist with the David Suzuki Foundation, said there is solid science showing a lack of prey is a critical factor for the whales.
Cutting the fishery is long overdue not only for the whales, but for the fish, he said.
“A lot more work is needed not just to protect the orcas … but actually to rebuild those chinook salmon and ensure that we’re managing fisheries to get enough chinook past the fishery, available to whales and then into spawning grounds so they can rebuild,” Young said.
He agreed that Ottawa’s announcement lacked details, not only about the closures, but what other measures will be taken to help save the whales.
New rules should be brought in for contaminants, underwater noise and how close people and vessels can get to marine mammals, Young said.
But he said the federal government’s announcement that the whales face an imminent threat to both their survival and recovery is an important statement, and he expects to see more regulations announced soon.
“We’re happy to see it,” Young said.
Bird said his members were very interested in being part of “meaningful efforts” to save the whales and he has been consulting with the federal government on the issue.
“The recreational community is absolutely invested in wanting to see these creatures recover,” he said.
A worst-case scenario would be if the government imposed measures against recreational fisheries and didn’t do anything else about the other problems affecting the whales, he said.
“You wouldn’t want to see fisheries closed and yet big ships going by or commercial fishing activities taking place totally unabated in those same areas.”
— With files from Laura Kane.