(The Canadian Press)

(The Canadian Press)

Ottawa adds to protections for endangered southern resident killer whales

Areas of the Juan de Fuca Strait and Southern Gulf Islands will be closed for recreational and commercial salmon fisheries

Expanded protections for endangered southern resident killer whales off British Columbia’s coast focus on contaminants, noise, physical disturbances and accessibility of chinook salmon, the orca’s primary prey.

The actions announced by several government departments Thursday include a ban on tourist or whale watching vessels with over 12 passengers until the end of June, a measure aimed at preventing the spread of COVID-19.

Areas of the Juan de Fuca Strait and Southern Gulf Islands will be closed for recreational and commercial salmon fisheries, with specific dates announced in June, the federal government said.

All fish harvesters are being asked to voluntarily stop fishing within 1,000 metres of orcas in B.C. waters.

Interim sanctuary zones established last year for the whales off Pender and Saturna islands will be back up from June 1 to the end of November, a month longer than 2019.

Fisheries and Oceans says the population of the southern residents has fluctuated between 70 and 99 whales since 1976, and their small population size and lack of calves means the unique family of orcas is “facing imminent threats to their survival and recovery.”

ALSO READ: Southern resident killer whale died of blunt trauma, likely from ship

Andrew Trites, the director of the marine mammal research unit at the University of British Columbia, said the orcas are in real trouble.

“Particularly with having so few births, having so few females in the population, having had a couple males dominate breeding, and then just all the added pressures put on the environment,” said Trites, pointing to ocean noise, dwindling fish stocks and the warming ocean.

No vessels will be permitted in sanctuary areas with the exceptions of emergency and Indigenous vessels, while boats are also prohibited from coming within 400 metres of any killer whale starting June 1, the federal government said.

There is an exception to that rule in place for whale watching and tourism companies that receive federal authorization, allowing them to view all whales except southern residents from 200 metres.

Vessels are also asked to reduce their speed within 1,000 metres of a whale and turn engines to neutral if a whale is within 400 metres, a measure the government said is in place year-round.

Officially, there are 73 southern residents, but the Centre for Whale Research in Washington state said the most prolific male is missing and presumed deceased.

The federal government said a technical working group has identified and compiled guidelines for key contaminants affecting whales and their prey.

Terry Beech, a Burnaby MP and parliamentary secretary for the minister of fisheries, said the government has taken unprecedented steps to protect the southern resident population over four years.

“We’ve shown how far we’re willing to go, and if there are measures that we can continue to take to protect this iconic species, all options are certainly on the table.”

Beech said more decisions about the chinook fishery will be made in the coming weeks.

Trites said it’s good to see the government take steps to create more favourable conditions for the endangered orcas.

The orcas haven’t been seen in the Salish Sea the way they once were, he said.

ALSO WATCH: Conservation groups sue Ottawa to protect endangered killer whales

“It’s not clear if the whales have seen the memo of all the changes that the government has put in place to make things better for them,” he quipped.

The whales’ range extends south to California, and Trites said all jurisdictions must take action to ensure their survival.

“So much attention is focused on just the Salish Sea. It’s like trying to save migratory birds by only protecting the bird feeder in your backyard.”

He said it’s not clear why southern residents are faring worse than their northern cousins, whose range extends from waters in B.C. to southeastern Alaska.

The northern residents, with four-times the population, may be getting ”first dibs” on salmon returning to the ocean from coastal B.C., said Trites, adding the southern residents’ habitat is also more industrialized.

With fewer vessels and noise in the water due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Trites said there’s some hope that scientists will be able to observe a change in behaviour and gain insight into what’s been affecting the whales.

Brenna Owen, The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism during the pandemic? Make a donation here.

Southern Resident Killer Whales

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

A laboratory technician holds a dose of a COVID-19 novel coronavirus vaccine candidate that’s ready for trial on monkeys at the National Primate Research Center of Thailand. (Mladen Antonov - AFP)
Interior Health reports 66 new COVID-19 infections

570 cases are active; 18 in hospital

(File photo)
Okanagan-Shuswap real estate markets not slowing down

Residential sales in the Central, North Okanagan and Shuswap beat last year’s sales by 71 per cent

A crowd of approximately 6,500 packed into Stuart Park in downtown Kelowna to ring in 2018. (Contributed)
Downtown Kelowna New Year’s celebration cancelled

The popular New York New Year’s event has been cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic

(Google Maps)
UPDATE: COVID-19 case confirmed at Mar Jok, Rutland Senior Secondary

School District 23 said the individual is now self-isolating

Residents should run their taps until cold before using their water. (Black Press file photo)
Westside water quality advisory back on tap

Leak repair at Westshore Estates affecting some properties, again

An Enderby restaurant and pub was shut down Sunday afternoon, Nov. 29, 2020 as a precaution after a guest reportedly tested positive for COVID-19. (Howard Johnson photo)
North Okanagan pub reopens after COVID-19 scare

After a guest reportedly tested positive for the virus, staff test results came back negative

Alix Longland
Trauma resources ready for North Okanagan refugees

Family Resource Centre working with UBCO social work grad to reach out to local refugees

Elkhart Gas Station, located on Highway 97C about 60 kilometres west of Peachland, opened in November 2020. (Google maps)
The Okanagan Connector now has a gas station

The highway previously ran for over 117 kilometres without a place to fuel up

The Hughes’ Grinch was stolen from their front yard Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2020. The Santa suit the Grinch is wearing is 50 years old and has sentimental value. It was once worn by April Hughes’ dad. (Hughes photo)
Grinch stolen from Penticton home is ‘irreplaceable’

The Hughes have had a Christmas display for 25 years on Grandy Avenue in Penticton

Midway RCMP’s Cpl. Phil Peters spoke at Greenwood’s city council meeting Monday, Nov. 23. Photo: Laurie Tritschler
B.C. Mountie builds fire to warm suspect with hypothermia prior to rescue

Cpl. Phil Peters said the civilian helped police track, apprehend and eventually rescue the suspect

Premier John Horgan leaves the podium following his first press conference of the year as he comments on various questions from the media in the Press Gallery at B.C. Legislature in Victoria, B.C., on Monday, January 13, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
Revelstoke COVID-19 cluster linked to non-essential travel: Horgan

There have been 46 cases of COVID-19 in the community

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Students at Lavington Elementary crammed a car full of non-perishables for those in the community facing food insecurity. Spearheaded by teacher January Peebles (left), the donations were picked up by Give LUCK founder Myrika Godard, who works to connect donors with donees in the North Okanagan. (Give LUCK photo)

Most Read