Protesters call for end to Chinook salmon fishing to save endangered orcas

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WATCH: Group calls for end of all Chinook salmon fishing to save orcas – Oct 3, 2018

Demonstrators concerned about the fate of the endangered southern resident killer whale population are calling for an end to all commercial fishing of Chinook salmon.

There are just 74 of the southern residents remaining, and scientists say a lack of their primary food source, Chinook, is one of the key threats to their survival.

On Wednesday, about a dozen protesters descended on Minister of Fisheries and Oceans Jonathan Wilkinson’s North Vancouver constituency office to call for change.

READ MORE: Study finds pollutants called PCBs pose greatest threat to orca population

“We are seeing the extinction of the three resident orca pods right before our eyes,” said protester Shirley Samples, a member of the Cook’s Ferry Indian Band.

“The Fraser River has such low numbers of Chinook, so that’s an indication of what the future is for the main food source for orcas. Right now, there’s 74 members, but of those members, there’s only five or six females that are at a time when they can have calves.”

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WATCH: Growing concerns about another sick orca

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Growing concerns about another sick Orca – Sep 27, 2018

Samples argued the government needs to ban all commercial and recreational Chinook fishing.

“Why don’t we subsidize these fishermen? Why don’t we give them money so they can make it through this time when they have to forfeit fishing? There is a solution,” she said.

“I feel for fishermen, that’s their livelihood, they’ve been doing it their whole lives, but the government has to step in and do something.”

In a statement, Wilkinson said the federal government was taking “urgent actions” to protect the orca population.

“Building on measures to address prey availability and vessel disturbances, we are proposing new additional critical habitat to help safeguard the future of these whales,” said Wilkinson.

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“We fully intend to keep our commitment to protect and support the recovery of Canada’s endangered resident killer whales.”

READ MORE: Conservation groups file lawsuit to protect endangered orcas

Last month, the Pacific Salmon Commission recommended a new conservation plan for fish in U.S. and Canadian waters that would see a 12.5 per cent reduction in Chinook catches in B.C.

The deal, which must still be ratified, would run from 2019 to 2028, and was negotiated between commercial fishers, First Nations and both countries’ governments.

Protesters on Wednesday also called for an immediate removal of at-sea fish farms, which they argue are weakening wild salmon by putting them in contact with sea lice and disease.

WATCH: Study says PCBs are killing orcas

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Study says PCBs are killing orcas – Sep 28, 2018

That’s an allegation the B.C. Salmon Farmers Association rejects.

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“The science tells us there’s no evidence that fish farms have no impact on wild salmon,” said spokesperson Shawn Hall, adding that salmon farmers adhere to strict regulations to control sea lice.

READ MORE: Rare orca ‘superpod’ forms as search continues for J50, endangered whale many fear dead

“[Fish farms] in fact play an important role in helping preserve wild salmon by providing a sustainable, green alternative when you’re in the grocery store to buying wild salmon and thus reducing pressure from over-fishing,” he said.

The plight of the southern resident killer whales drew international attention this summer.

In September, J50 — a young, breeding-aged female who became critically ill — died despite a cross-border effort by scientists and veterinarians to save her. In July and August, new-mother J35 made headlines when she kept her dead calf afloat for more than two weeks, pushing its body more than 1,500 kilometres.

Scientists believe the southern residents, which are listed as endangered under the Species At Risk Act, are also threatened by growing noise in the marine environment and by exposure to pollutants, such as PCBs.