The Canadian government has announced sweeping new rules to protect southern resident killer whales off the coast of British Columbia, including requiring ships to stay 400 metres away from the animals and closing some salmon fisheries.
Fisheries and Oceans Minister Jonathan Wilkinson announced on Friday the latest set of recovery measures for the endangered southern residents, of which only 75 remain and they face a number of serious threats.
“We are committed to working thoughtfully and collaboratively to address the decline and to promote the recovery of the southern resident killer whale population,” he told a news conference.
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“The measures announced today reflect the commitment to recover the whales in a manner that takes in account important economic factors and collaboration with First Nations and coastal communities.”
Starting in June, the minimum distance ships must keep from all killer whales will double to 400 metres, although commercial whale-watchers can apply for authorization to view whales other than southern residents from 200 metres away.
Several commercial whale watching companies, including members of the Pacific Whale Watch Association, have entered into an agreement with the government to refrain from offering tours to see southern resident killer whales, Wilkinson said.
No vessel traffic will be allowed at all in “interim sanctuary zones,” at Swiftsure Bank, off southwestern Vancouver Island, and near Pender and Saturna islands, two Gulf Islands.
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The department is immediately asking ships to voluntarily turn off echo sounders when not in use, allow engines to idle when within 400 metres of killer whales and, in some locations, go slow when they’re within one kilometre of southern residents.
It’s also closing recreational and commercial fishing of all types of salmon in parts of the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the Gulf Islands, which will take effect after previously announced restrictions on chinook fishing wrap up in mid-July or August, and will extend through Oct. 31.
A voluntary “fishery avoidance zone” will also cover part of the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the Gulf Islands, as well as the mouth of the Fraser River, and requests that recreational and, where possible, commercial harvesters temporarily suspend fishing activity when within one kilometre of a killer whale.
The department also says it’s implementing a range of initiatives, programs and investments to support habitat protection and restoration of chinook salmon, the primary prey of southern resident killer whales.
It says one major initiative is an increase of one million juvenile chinook at a Chilliwack, B.C., hatchery, resulting in 35,000 additional adults – a 35 per cent increase in total abundance of fall chinook in the Fraser River.
Transport Canada is also launching a trial program of an expanded voluntary slowdown for commercial vessels through Harrow Strait and Boundary Pass, ranging from June to the end of September, though the government will monitor and extend by two weeks at a time based on whale presence up until Oct. 31.
The Department of Fisheries said it’s also expanding and strengthening its enforcement capacity. Dedicated fishery officers will be on the water verifying compliance with the new fisheries management measures and the 400-metre minimum approach distance, the departments says.
Transport Canada will conduct aerial surveillance while Parks Canada and Canadian Coast Guard will also support compliance efforts.
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The government said it’s undertaking education and outreach to raise awareness of the new rules and guidelines. It’s also collaborating with Washington state, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and other partners.
The department said it consulted with Indigenous groups, environmental organizations, commercial and recreational harvesters, shippers, other levels of government, Washington state and others.
The Liberal government announced the $1.5-billion Oceans Protection Plan in 2017, shortly before announcing it would approve the expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline, which would increase tanker traffic seven-fold in Burrard Inlet in Metro Vancouver.
The government has also launched a $167-million Whales Initiative and last October announced a further investment of $61.5 million over five years to address threats to the southern residents.