The Government of Canada outlines 2023 measures to protect Southern Resident killer whales
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. Our measures focus on addressing the three primary threats to Southern Resident killer whales: acoustic and physical disturbance, prey availability and accessibility, and contaminants.
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 fifth consecutive year, Transport Canada is implementing expanded measures for vessel operators, including:
- Vessels must stay at least 400 metres away from all killer whales year-round in southern British Columbia coastal waters between Campbell River to just north of Ucluelet.
- Commercial whale-watching and ecotourism companies that receive an authorization from the Minister of Transport will be able to view transient (Biggs) killer whales from 200 metres, given their expertise in identifying different types of killer whales. This provision does not apply to the Southern Resident killer whale population.
- If a vessel finds itself within 400 metres of a killer whale, they are asked to turn off fish finders and echo sounders and put the engine in neutral when safe to do so to allow animals to pass.
- If a vessel is within 1,000 metres of a killer whale, they are asked to reduce speed to less than 7 knots when safe to do so to lessen engine noise and vessel wake.
- For the 2023 season, Transport Canada will be strengthening the requirements of the avoidance distance to further minimize physical and acoustic disturbance in the presence of killer whales in the Interim Order under the Canada Shipping Act, 2001.
The 2023 measures continue the mandatory Speed Restricted Zones near Swiftsure Bank, co-developed with the Pacheedaht First Nation. All vessels are required to slow down to a maximum of 10 knots while in the areas.
- From June 1 until November 30, 2023, all vessels must slow down to a maximum of 10 knots in two Speed Restricted Zones near Swiftsure Bank. The first area is in the Protected Fisheries Management Area 121-1 and the second Speed Restricted Zone is located near the mouth of the Nitinat River from Carmanah Point to Longitude 125 degrees west.
- Exemptions are in place for the following:
- 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
- The mandatory Speed Restricted Zones measure is separate from the voluntary slowdowns coordinated by the ECHO Program.
- Transport Canada and Fisheries and Oceans Canada have heard feedback on Southern Resident killer whales and other killer whale approach distances through our engagement and consultations with Indigenous groups, partners and stakeholders as part of the Southern Resident killer whale management measure process. The Government of Canada is also closely monitoring and considering the proposed adjustments to approach distances in Washington State as well as evolving science on killer whale vessel disturbance.
- The Government of Canada has been doing further analysis on advancing protections for killer whales in British Columbia considering the above-mentioned feedback and in relation to the Marine Mammal Regulations. In the coming year, DFO will be launching a consultation process to consider adjustments to approach distances for killer whales on the Pacific coast under the Marine Mammal Regulations of the Fisheries Act. Any potential changes to the Marine Mammal Regulations will be based on scientific advice and partner and stakeholder feedback to date, as part of the upcoming consultation process.
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, 2023, 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.
- 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 for salmon between fish harvesters and killer whales. Opportunities will be available 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:
- Expanding the area-based closures in Southern Resident killer whale key foraging areas for recreational and commercial salmon fisheries around Swiftsure Bank (portion of Subareas 121-1 and 121-2, and new for 2023 Subarea 21-0). These closures will be in place following the expiry of the Chinook non-retention measures (to be finalized in June 2023) until October 31, 2023.
- Similar to 2022, area-based closures for recreational and commercial salmon fisheries will be in place in Southern Resident killer whale key foraging areas in the Strait of Juan de Fuca (portions of Subareas 20-1 and 20-5) following the expiry of the Chinook non-retention measures (to be finalized in June 2023) until October 23, 2023, and around the mouth of the Fraser River (a portion of Subarea 29-3) from August 1 to September 30, 2023.
- The Southern Gulf Islands area-based fishing closures (Subarea 18-9 and portions of 18-2, 18-4 and 18-5) are triggered for commercial and recreational salmon fisheries upon the first confirmed presence of Southern Resident killer whales in the area until November 30, 2023. This extends the closures by one month, compared to 2022, and is based on data that Southern Resident killer whales occupy the Salish Sea in greater numbers later in the fall. Monitoring of the area will begin on May 1, 2023. Once presence of a Southern Resident killer whale is confirmed, fishery closures will be triggered according to the closure protocol for this area.
- All fishers are encouraged to temporarily cease fishing activities (e.g., 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 fourth 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.
Enhancing Cetacean Habitat and Observation Program (ECHO)
For the seventh year in a row, the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority-led ECHO Program will coordinate large-scale underwater noise reduction measures encouraging ship operators to slow down or stay distanced while traveling through key areas of Southern Resident killer whale critical habitat in Haro Strait, Boundary Pass, Swiftsure Bank, and the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
Full details of the ECHO Program’s voluntary measures, including dates, target slowdown speeds and location coordinates, will be available on the ECHO Program's website (www.portvancouver.com/echo) by May 1.
The Government of Canada leads a technical working group focused on contaminants in the environment comprised of key partners from all levels of government, academia and non-governmental organizations. Over the past four years, this group has:
- Identified priority contaminants of concern;
- Provided recommendations for long-term actions; and
- Continues to conduct important monitoring and research.
In addition, the group continues to recommend and develop environmental quality guidelines and compare those environmental quality guidelines with monitoring data in order to identify areas of potential risk for further action.
The Government of Canada developed and 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 primary prey, Chinook salmon. This tool is publicly available online 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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