Canada expands orca research and recovery efforts

The Canadian federal government is taking steps to save the endangered Southern resident killer whale and is asking for the public’s help.

“As a British Columbian, I know how the Southern Resident Killer Whale captures the imagination of Canadians and is a powerful symbol of British Columbia,” wrote Jonathan Wilkinson, Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard in a Sept. 5 press release. “That is why we continue to take urgent actions to protect our Resident Killer Whales.”

Wilkinson has requested that Canadians share their views on a proposed amended Canadian recovery strategy for both the Northern and Southern resident killer whales. From Sept. 4 until Nov. 3, Canadians are encouraged to submit their comments on the proposal. The strategy was originally written in 2008, seven years after Canada added the orca to its endangered species list, and it was amended in 2011.

“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,” Wilkinson wrote in the release. “We fully intend to keep our commitment to protect and support the recovery of Canada’s endangered Resident Killer Whales. ”

The proposed changes to the 94-page document focus on critical habitat for the orcas and adding two new locations, one off the coast of southwestern Vancouver Island, and another along the north coast of Graham Island – an area that is important to the Northern residents. Over the past year, Canada introduced a $1.5 billion (Canadian) Oceans Protection Plan and launched a $167 million (Canadian) Whales Initiative.

To aid in the recovery of the Canadian government is adding immediate actions such as reducing Chinook fisheries; adding fishery officers to verify compliance; requiring a buffer of 200 metres from orcas; installing underwater hydrophones in the Salish Sea to record noise levels; partnering with the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority Enhancing Cetacean Habitat and Observation (ECHO) program on a voluntary vessel slowdown in Haro Strait to reduce vessel noise using the port (current participation rates are at 90 percent compliance); increasing aerial surveillance patrols; research contaminants and vessel noise impacts on both orca populations; collaborating with United States partners, area tribes and shipping companies to a trial run to move vessels away from known foraging areas of the Southern residents by going further south within existing shipping lanes in the Strait of Juan de Fuca; developing a noise mitigation plan with BC Ferries, including purchasing quieter vessels; and expanding research and strengthening and enforcing environmental contaminant regulations.

“The Government is determined to build on the progress we’ve made under the Oceans Protection Plan over the last two years to protect the Northern and Southern resident killer whales,” wrote Canada Minister of Transport Marc Garneau in the press release. “We have had great success with a 90 percent participation in the voluntary slowdown of commercial ships in the Haro Strait to reduce noise impacts, and we will do all we can to bring this rate up to 100 percent.”