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.
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An emergency order under the Species at Risk Act
Southern resident killer whales are recognized as endangered under Canada’s Species at Risk
In May, the federal government concluded these whales face imminent threats to their survival and recovery, requiring a response under the Species at Risk Act. Five organizations — the David Suzuki Foundation, Georgia Strait Alliance, the Natural Resources Defence Council, Raincoast Conservation Foundation and WWF Canada — petitioned the minister of fisheries and oceans and minister of the environment and climate change through Ecojustice to recommend an emergency order to protect the whales. The petition identified measures including the creation of feeding refuges closed to fishing, rebuilding depleted Chinook populations, limits to whale-watching, and regulatory measures to address underwater noise from shipping. In addition to immediate measures on Chinook fishing and whale watching outlined above, these measures must be in place by next year.
Rather than recommend an emergency order, the ministers took limited and inadequate steps such as implementing fisheries closures in some of the whales’ foraging areas and clarifying that commercial and recreational whale watchers must stay 200 metres from killer whales. These actions were not supported by adequate enforcement or monitoring, and the other actions announced are voluntary, research-oriented, yet to begin and/or lack specific timelines.
Studies indicate the whales had a 25 to 50 per cent risk of extinction by the end of the century under conditions that were present prior to 2014. Those conditions have since worsened.
Nearly 70 per cent of detected pregnancies between 2008 and 2014 failed due to nutritional stress associated with lack of prey.
Research by an international team of scientists, including Raincoast staff, showed that a modelled 30 per cent increase in the coast-wide Chinook abundance above the 1979-2008 average could increase southern resident growth rate by as much as 1.9 per cent (Lacy et al., 2017). When noise and disturbance are addressed along with Chinook abundance, population viability modelling shows that a 15 per cent increase in the coast-wide abundance, coupled with a 50 per cent reduction in vessel noise and disturbance, can meet the U.S. recovery target of 2.3 per cent annual growth (based on SRKW demographics to 2014, Lacy et al. 2017).
Source: Lacy, R.C., R. Williams, E. Ashe, K.C. Balcomb, L.J. N. Brent, C.W. Clark, D.P. Croft, D.A. Giles, M.
MacDuffee and P.C. Paquet. 2017. Evaluating anthropogenic threats to endangered killer whales
to inform effective recovery plans. Scientific Reports 7, Article no: 14119 doi:10.1038/s41598-017-
Over the past two decades, 14 to 28 boats routinely followed southern residents in the summer months, with peak numbers exceeding 70 boats (see Ashe et al. 2010, Soundwatch 2016). The presence and noise from these vessels reduces foraging activity and limit the whales’ ability to acquire prey (Lusseau et al. 2009, Noren et al. 2009, Williams et al. 2014, Lacy et al. 2017, Holt et al. 2017).
Vessel traffic and noise is known to increase the duration and amplitude of calls and is likely to adversely affect the whales by masking and altering vital communication calls.
A full marine Chinook fishery closure along B.C.’s coast is needed because:
- Given very poor returns of most Chinook salmon, and the need for Chinook by critically endangered orca, all marine fisheries for Chinook should be immediately closed.
- Monitoring of the recreational fishery is too limited to effectively manage reducing the number of fish each fisher is allowed to take. Only a full closure will ensure adequate enforcement.
- A Chinook rebuilding plan that includes habitat restoration is needed to restore wild Chinook salmon abundance at the population level.
- Hatcheries are not an effective rebuilding tool because they most often do more harm to wild salmon rather than enhancing wild populations. Hatcheries are not a substitute for rebuilding wild Chinook stocks to feed whales, which is what is needed now.
- Feeding refuges should be expanded and apply to all other fishing to ensure these whales have the space they need to forage and are sheltered from vessel disturbance so that they can catch their prey.