In February, the world watched the opening ceremonies of Vancouver's Olympic Winter Games. A big part of the show featured iconic animals of B.C., including ruby red sockeye salmon schooling at their spawning grounds and a pod of killer whales breaching along the coast. Despite the wonder of this spectacle, the irony is poignant — both B.C. sockeye salmon and killer whales are in serious trouble.
This week, these two opening ceremony stars are the focus of a federal inquiry and a lawsuit. By coincidence, both legal processes commence on the same day and even in the same Federal court building. The David Suzuki Foundation is actively engaged in both.
Although both processes have emerged from different events, the management of salmon and the well-being of killer whales are deeply interrelated. Resident killer whales are almost exclusively salmon eaters, with a strong preference for chinook salmon that make up 90 per cent of their diet. The failures in the management of sockeye salmon that will be investigated by the Cohen Commission — including habitat loss, open net-cage salmon farming, climate change and fishing — have lessons applicable to all Pacific salmon species.
The Commission was struck last November after three consecutive years of the lowest returns of sockeye salmon in the Fraser River in more than 50 years. Abundance of B.C. chinook salmon, especially in southern regions, has also declined.
The killer whale trial is the culmination of a lengthy legal challenge by the David Suzuki Foundation and eight other environmental organizations making the case that the protection of the whales' critical habitat requires consideration of not only physical habitat (like rocks, islands, and channels) but also the biological elements of this habitat including access to prey like salmon.
At the heart of both cases is an examination of how our activities affect these important species, what it will take to keep them around, and most importantly, what it will take to rebuild their numbers so they can continue to be icons of this province and play a vital role in coastal and freshwater ecosystems. We will be doing our part to make sure that the outcome of these legal processes is as useful as possible for sockeye salmon, killer whales and us.
Killer whale (Credit: Lana Gunnlaugson)