The population of Ucluelet, British Columbia, is less than 2,000, but people who live there say Ottawa’s pending plan to protect killer whales could decimate the municipality’s economy – and have a ripple effect for tens of thousands of people.
“I’m concerned that they’re making decisions from a centralized location and they’re not really in touch with what’s happening here,” said Lynette O’Brien.
She runs one of about 50 tourist sport fishing boats, as well as guides whale-watching tours.
“I’m worried about my little town and the economy. I’m worried about the salmon. I’m worried about the whales. It’s a lot.”
She’s concerned because Ottawa has committed big bucks to protect the endangered killer whale population off the coast of Vancouver Island.
The overarching Oceans Protection Plan, launched two years ago, now comes with a $1.5-billion price tag. The latest federal budget committed an additional $137 million for whale protection, and in late October, the fisheries minister announced another $61.5 million specifically to protect the endangered southern resident killer whale.
One part of the plan the feds are mulling over involves designating the waters where O’Brien fishes as a critical habitat area. Officials are also considering an accompanying sport fishing ban in those waters, to help boost the salmon population and feed the whales.
People in Ucluelet are so worried about the potential effects on tourism and their marine-based economy, the town council sent a letter to Ottawa asking them to stop the process, and NDP MP Gord Johns is working on a petition.
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Ottawa is expected to make a final decision in the next month, but people in Ucluelet are already feeling the impact.
“There’s uncertainty,” said Lara Kemps, CEO of the chamber of commerce and a newly elected councillor.
“It’s very stressful. It’s very stressful for our sports fishing community because it’s so unknown. They’ve seized bookings for 2019,” said Kemps.
Keith Nakagawa has been living in and fishing off Ucluelet for nearly seven decades. He’s worked in commercial fisheries as well as on recreational fishing boats. He says a sport fishing ban would be devastating.
“It’s not just the guys that take the people fishing, but it’s the tackle shops, the fuel dock, the grocery stores, the restaurants, hotels, everything. It would affect everybody,” said Nakagawa.
It would also impact several other coastal communities along the west coast of Vancouver Island, and the thousands of tourists from across the globe who visit each year.
Instead of banning sport fishing, some locals are calling for an injection of funds into salmon hatcheries, which haven’t had a financial boost in nearly three decades.
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In addition to feeding mouths and the tourism economy, chinook salmon are the preferred prey of the endangered whales.
“We need an injection of funds into our hatcheries, our creek restoration, our monitoring, our enforcement. That needs to be done right away,” said Kemps.
Fisheries Minister Jonathan Wilkinson tells Global News new money for hatcheries is the focus of the latest $61.5-million cash injection, with funds promised for five years and the first cash rolling out over the next year.
“The focus now is going to be which hatcheries and where, which is going to be most impactful for the southern resident killer whale.”
The minister said designating more zones as critical habitat areas doesn’t automatically mean a ban on sport fishing will come, too — it’s all part of the consultation process. That process closed on Nov. 3 and Ottawa now has 30 days to make a decision.
“We’ll be looking at the kinds of restrictions that need to happen within areas of critical habitat. Those may affect fisheries, they may affect transportation-related issues,” Wilkinson said.
“We’re certainly concerned about the impacts, the local economic impacts. It’s really important that we hear from communities, and we can try to think about creative ways that we can address some of those concerns while we’re also protecting the whales,” said Wilkinson, adding that he has a legal requirement to protect them under the Species at Risk Act.
While he said he’s met with people from Ucluelet and will continue to do so, and he encourages them to submit their ideas, those in the small town feel they aren’t being heard.
“The consultation they gave us was 60 seconds, with a microphone which they held, you couldn’t hold your own microphone,” said O’Brien.
“I didn’t speak, I just kind of sat there going, ‘What is happening?’”
Once she processed what happened, she took action. She wrote a letter and shared it on Facebook, then spent hours sitting outside the local grocery store getting people to sign on and handing out slips of paper with contact information for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO), urging others to make their voice heard on the issue.
She got some muscle power from local NDP MP Gord Johns, who is turning her letter into an official petition on Parliament Hill.
“We’ve got good solutions that we’ve been calling on the government to look at and address and resource, but the government’s been missing in action,” said Johns.
“We haven’t seen the Oceans Protection Plan, the coastal restoration funds that the government highly touts, show up in our communities. In fact, it’s been almost invisible.”
Some in town also question the science behind Ottawa’s proposed critical habitat designation.
“If this is a critical habitat area, that is fine, but show us the data. And the data we’ve seen right now, we don’t like the looks of it.”
Nakagawa says he’s been fishing seven days a week for decades and doubts he’s seen a southern resident killer whale in the waters in question. He believes he’s seen some of the other groups of killer whales — the transient and the offshore – but not the southern resident.
“I’ve never seen the DFO out on La Perouse bank that often anyway, so I don’t know where they get their figures. I saw one report that said one out of every three days, there’s a southern resident orca on the La Perouse bank. Like I say, I’ve been out there for years and I’ve never seen them.”
Nakagawa says Canada needs more hatcheries. O’Brien and Kemps hope the injection of funds into the existing ones comes soon.
“We fundraise for stuff with bake sales for our environment,” says O’Brien of efforts to keep the local hatchery afloat.
“It just seems kind of crazy to me.”