Government of Canada outlines its 2019 plan for protecting Southern Resident killer whales

Backgrounder

The Government of Canada has formally recognized that the Southern Resident killer whale face imminent threats to their survival and recovery, and that saving these iconic mammals requires comprehensive and immediate action.

The enhanced measures announced on May 10 build upon the earlier initiatives. They have also been informed by the significant work of five technical working groups comprised of First Nations, governments and key scientific and stakeholder advisors, and are designed to directly address each of the key threats to the Southern Resident killer whale population’s long-term survival.

They will help to secure the recovery of the Southern Resident killer whales while considering the social and economic interests of First Nations and coastal communities that rely on marine based industries.

Prey

To address the limited availability of prey, we are putting in place a combination of fishing restrictions and voluntary measures that will support prey availability for Southern Resident killer whales, including:

  • Area-based closures in key foraging areas for recreational and commercial salmon fisheries, (rules for other fisheries in these areas will remain unchanged) which will take effect after the Chinook conservation non-retention measures end and will remain in place through the end of October, including:
    • Strait of Juan de Fuca (Areas 20-3, 20-4): Recreational and commercial salmon closures in effect in key foraging areas from July 15 or August 1, depending on the sub-area, until October 31.
    • Gulf Islands (portions of Areas 18-9, 18-4, 18-5, 18-2): Recreational and commercial closures in effect in key foraging areas from August 1 until October 31.
  • Fisheries and Oceans Canada will trial bubble closures in the vicinity of killer whales in three “Enhanced Management Areas” known to be important for Southern Resident killer whales: the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the Gulf Islands, and the mouth of the Fraser River. All commercial and recreational fish harvesters would be expected to temporarily stop fishing activities when killer whales are within 1 km between May and the end of October. Many ofthese areas in which it will apply were subject to area based closures in 2018.
  • These areas in which these measures are in place will reduce competition for Chinook salmon between fish harvesters and the killer whales, while still providing opportunities for non-salmon recreational and commercial fisheries.
  • Further, to increase the abundance of Chinook salmon, the primary prey for these whales, DFO has committed to releasing an additional 1 million juvenile Chinook annually from Chilliwack Hatchery for five years to support Southern Resident killer whale recovery. These particular Chinook stocks are important for Southern Resident Killer Whales and are available in the whales’ critical habitat year-round.

Acoustic and physical disturbance

Measures to address noise and physical disturbance from the Large Commercial Vessel Sector in 2019 will build on successes and lessons learned from the collaborative efforts of the Government of Canada and the Vancouver Port Authority’s Enhancing Cetacean Habitat and Observation (ECHO) program to reduce underwater noise from this sector over the last two years. In addition, new measures for all vessel types will reduce underwater noise in key foraging areas; and require vessels to keep further away from the Southern Resident killer whales.

To further reduce underwater noise from commercial vessels, under the leadership of the ECHO program, this year two important initiatives will be put in place, specifically:

  • The voluntary slowdown in Haro Strait will be expanded to include Boundary Pass, resulting in lower noise in a wider area. The slowdown will begin June 1, or as soon as whales are spotted in the area.
    • This year, speeds will be reduced for all vessel classes. 
    • Car carriers, cruise ships and container ships will be asked to lower their speed to 14.5 knots
    • Tankers, bulkers, ferries and government vessels will be asked to transit at 11.5 knots.
  • Vessels travelling between the shore and shipping lane in the Strait of Juan de Fuca will be asked to travel further south to increase their distance from key foraging areas. The Government of Canada is working on the final details with the Enhancing Cetacean Habitat and Observation (ECHO) program partners, and the U.S. Coast Guard to identify areas in the Strait of Juan de Fuca where travel shifts could be put in place

Recognizing the important role that smaller vessels play, to address all vessel traffic, including recreational boats and whale watching vessels, the Government of Canada is introducing a suite of measures starting June 1, 2019:

  • A new mandatory 400-metre approach distance to all killer whales in the Southern Resident killer whale critical habitat will take effect. Exceptions for commercial whale watching companies to allow viewing of transient or Biggs killer whales at the existing 200-metre approach distance may be authorized if they enter an agreement with the Minister of Transport.
  • The Pacific Whale Watch Association will be entering into such an agreement, whereby their members agree to refrain from offering tours on Southern Resident killer whales, in addition to taking other stewardship actions. The agreement will also commit them to a series of best practices, as described in the Pacific Whale Watch Association’s own guidelines.
  • When safe to do so, vessel operators are asked to turn off their echo sounders and turn engines to neutral idle if a whale is within 400 metres.
  • In the three “Enhanced Management Areas” all vessels are asked to reduce their speed to less than 7 knots if they are within 1 km of killer whales.

 Sanctuaries

  • Interim sanctuary zones, off the South-west coast of Pender Island and south-east end of Saturna Island, will also limit fishing activity and vessel traffic from June 1 until October 31, subject to exceptions including emergency vessels and vessels engaged in indigenous food, social and ceremonial fisheries. These areas are important foraging areas and are intended to create spaces of refuge for the whales on an interim basis pending further feasibility assessment work on a longer term sanctuary approach. The interim sanctuary zone at Swiftsure will expand the scope of an existing and longstanding fishery closure to apply to all commercial and recreational fisheries. Vessel restrictions will be put in place using the Interim Order power of the Minister of Transport under the Canada Shipping Act.

Contaminants

Recognizing the long term nature of contaminants in the environment, new emerging contaminants of concern, and food web interactions affecting the Southern Resident killer whale and their prey, work is under way to:

  • Amend the Prohibition of Certain Toxic Substances Regulations, 2012 to further restrict five chemicals (flame retardants, oil and water repellants) and prohibit two new flame retardants.
  • Increase monitoring, surveillance (i.e. freshwater, air, landfill leachate and disposal at sea) and research to identify sources of contaminants and how they are entering the aquatic environment.

May, 2019


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