The Government of Canada outlines 2022 measures to protect Southern Resident killer whales

Backgrounder

The Government of Canada recognizes that Southern Resident killer whales face imminent threats to their survival, and that protecting these iconic marine mammals requires comprehensive and immediate action. The focus of our measures is on addressing the primary threats to Southern Resident killer whales: reduced prey availability and accessibility, acoustic and physical disturbance, and contaminants.

Prey Availability

  • Chinook, chum, and coho salmon are an essential part of the Southern Resident killer whale diet. To address the limited availability of this prey, Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) is continuing a combination of fishing restrictions in key foraging areas within their critical habitat, along with voluntary measures coastwide. These measures will reduce competition between fish harvesters and killer whales for salmon. This will still provide opportunities for non-salmon related recreational and commercial fisheries, and for food, social, and ceremonial harvest, as well as Indigenous domestic treaty fishing access.
  • The following measures will help protect the whales’ access to salmon and ensure minimal disturbance in key foraging areas:
    • Expanded area-based closures will be in place in Southern Resident killer whale key foraging areas for recreational and commercial salmon fisheries. Dates of recreation and commercial fishery closures will be finalized in June 2022, but will take place in:
      • Swiftsure Bank (portion of Subareas 121-1 and 121-2)
      • The Strait of Juan de Fuca (Subareas 20-1 and 20-5)
    • New fishing closures for recreational and commercial salmon in the mouth of the Fraser River (Subarea 29-3) to provide protection in Southern Resident killer whale key foraging area.
    • The Southern Gulf Islands (Subarea 18-9 and portions of 18-4, 18-5 and 18-2) closure protocol for commercial and recreational salmon fisheries will be in effect from the first confirmed presence of Southern Resident killer whales in the area to October 31, 2022. Monitoring of the area will begin May 5, 2022, and once a Southern Resident killer whale is confirmed, fishery closures will be triggered. 
    • All fishers are encouraged to temporarily cease fishing activities (do not haul in gear) when killer whales are within 1,000 metres. This voluntary measure is in place year-round throughout Canadian Pacific waters.
    • For the third consecutive year, DFO is also planning to release one million Chilliwack River Chinook Hatchery salmon to support the availability of prey within the habitat of Southern Resident killer whales.

Acoustic and physical disturbances from vessels

All vessels, including commercial vessels, recreational boats, and whale watching vessels, have an important role to play in reducing acoustic and physical disturbance. For the fourth consecutive year, Transport Canada is implementing expanded measures for vessel operators, including:

  • Vessels must stay at least 400 metres away from all killer whales in southern British Columbia coastal waters between Campbell River to just north of Ucluelet, year-round. Whale watching and ecotourism companies that receive an authorization from the Minister of Transport will be able to view killer whales, other than the Southern Resident killer whales, from 200 metres, given their expertise in identifying different types of killer whales.
  • Vessels are asked to turn off fish finders and echo sounders when safe to do so and to place the engine in neutral and allow animals to pass if you find yourself within 400 metres of a killer whale.
  • All vessels are asked to reduce their speed to less than 7 knots when safe to do so if they are within 1,000 metres of killer whales, to reduce engine noise and vessel wake.

Based on recently published scientific data and in co-development with Pacheedaht First Nation, two new Seasonal Slowdown Areas are being piloted near Swiftsure Bank. All vessels are required to slow down to a maximum of 10 knots while in the areas. This measure is separate from the voluntary slowdowns coordinated by the ECHO Program.

  • From June 1 until November 30, 2022, all vessels must slow down to a maximum of 10 knots in two new Seasonal Slowdown Areas near Swiftsure Bank. The first area is in the Protected Fisheries Management Area 121-1 and the second Seasonal Slowdown Area is located near the mouth of the Nitinat River from Carmanah Point to Longitude 125 degrees west.
  • Exemptions are in place for the following (subject to changes):
    • Vessels in distress or providing assistance to a vessel or person in distress.
    • Vessels avoiding immediate or unforeseen danger.
    • Government or law enforcement on official business. 
    • Permitted research if the research requires higher speed.
    • A sailing vessel proceeding under sail and not being propelled by machinery.

Interim sanctuary zones

Interim sanctuary zones create spaces of refuge for the whales on a temporary basis, pending further research for a longer-term approach. The location of these zones is based on scientific and Indigenous knowledge of historically important foraging areas for Southern Resident killer whales.

  • From June 1 until November 30, 2022, no vessel traffic or fishing activity is allowed in interim sanctuary zones off the southwest coast of South Pender Island and the southeast end of Saturna Island. Exceptions will be allowed for emergency situations and vessels engaged in Indigenous food, social, and ceremonial fisheries.
  • To ensure the safety of those operating human-powered vessels, a 20-metre corridor next to shore will allow kayakers and other paddlers to transit through these zones. If a killer whale is in the sanctuary at the time, paddlers must remain 400 metres away from the whales.

Enhancing Cetacean Habitat and Observation Program (ECHO)

For the sixth year in a row, the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority-led Enhancing Cetacean Habitat and Observation (ECHO) Program will coordinate underwater noise reduction initiatives in key areas of Southern Resident killer whale critical habitat across the Salish Sea. While in effect last year, these initiatives reduced underwater sound intensity by up to 55% in key foraging areas within Southern Resident killer whale critical habitat.

In 2022, the ECHO Program will organize three voluntary initiatives encouraging ships to either slow down or stay distanced in Southern Resident killer whale critical habitat:

  • A new voluntary ship slowdown trial at Swiftsure Bank. From June 1 to October 31, all vessels transiting through the inbound and outbound shipping lanes at Swiftsure Bank will be asked to voluntarily slow down when safe and operationally feasible to do so.
  • A lateral displacement in the Strait of Juan de Fuca. From June 1 to October 31, all tugboats transiting in the Canadian inshore area of the Strait of Juan de Fuca will be asked to move south of the known Southern Resident killer whale feeding area when safe and operationally feasible to do so.
  • A voluntary ship slowdown at Haro Strait & Boundary Pass. From approximately June 1 to November 30 –timing depending on the presence of Southern Resident killer whales–all vessels will be asked to voluntarily slow down while transiting through Haro Strait & Boundary Pass when safe and operationally feasible to do so.

Full details of the ECHO Program’s initiatives, including target slowdown speeds and location coordinates, are available on their website at portvancouver.com/echo/projects

Contaminants

The Government of Canada leads a technical working group on contaminants in the environment comprised of key partners from all levels of government, academia and non-governmental organizations. Over the past three years, this group has identified key contaminants of concern and continued important monitoring and research. In addition, 59 environmental quality guidelines were recommended, based on a scientific framework, to protect Southern Resident killer whales and their prey. The Government of Canada also recently launched the Pollutants Affecting Whales and their Prey Inventory Tool which maps estimates of pollutant releases within the habitats of Resident killer whales and their prey. This tool is public and will help model the impacts of additional mitigation measures and controls.

Reflecting on the persistence of many contaminants in the environment, the Government of Canada and its partners continue to progress on long-term actions to support Southern Resident killer whale recovery in the following areas:

  • Develop and implement further controls such as regulations or guidelines to reduce the threat of contaminants;
  • Conduct research and monitoring to further our understanding of contaminants in the environment and their impacts;
  • Share data, information, and knowledge among partners to inform decision-making; and
  • Undertake outreach, education and engagement to inform the public and involve them in solutions.

Compliance with management measures depends on public awareness. The Government of Canada continues to collaborate with educational organizations, environmental groups, Indigenous partners, and government bodies in Canada and the United States to raise awareness of the Southern Resident killer whale protection measures through public education and outreach efforts.

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