Image provided by Rachael Merrett/Georgia Strait Alliance.

B.C. killer whales need emergency protection, according to conservation groups

Food availability, excess noise and habitat loss are major threats to southern resident orcas

The Raincoast Foundation, David Suzuki Foundation, WWF Canada and other conservation groups are asking the Canadian government to protect Southern Resident Killer Whales (SRKW).

Ecojustice, a Canadian environmental law charity, sent a petition on Tuesday to the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans, Dominic LeBlanc, and the Minister of Environment and Climate Change, Catherine McKenna. It asks them to issue an emergency order under the Species At Risk Act (SARA) to protect the 76 SRKWs that live in the Salish Sea.The Georgia Strait Alliance and the Natural Resource Defense Council are also involved with the petition.

The SRKWs are a huge boon for local whale-watching operations, and they are one of the most recognizable species on the West Coast. Their numbers were originally decimated by aquariums looking for docile orcas in the 1970s, and their population has not recovered to pre-capture levels, in part due to salmon shortages and ocean pollutants, particularly PCBs which bioaccumulate in their bodies.

Specifically, the group wants the federal government to address three main issues: food availability, excess noise and legal habitat protection.

In an interview, Misty MacDuffee, Wild Salmon Program Director at Raincoast, said the federal government has taken too long to implement protections, and did not protect the characteristics of a healthy habitat, just its boundaries.

“You can’t just draw hatches on a map, you have to actually describe the attributes of physical habitat…in the case of killer whales, that means that it has an adequate abundance of salmon, that the noise does not prevent them from being able to communicate and find food, and that the waters draining into that critical habitat aren’t polluted,” said MacDuffee.

Despite many court actions, MacDuffee said “the federal government has still not issued any directives to reduce the threats to southern resident killer whales since they were listed [as a species-at-risk] in 2002.”

In October 2017, the federal government pledged to keep whale-watching boats farther from whales, doubling the minimum following distance to 200 metres from 100. The regulations are not yet in place, but one industry group has agreed to abide by the distance.

RELATED: New federal regulations to keep boats farther from whales

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Not only are the salmon numbers low, said MacDuffee, but whales cannot use echolocation to find salmon because of boat noise, which compounds the problem. The conservation groups want designated foraging areas where boats cannot go into, giving orcas a quieter place to hunt. They also want DFO restrictions on Chinook fisheries and a rebuilding plan to increase their population numbers.

“Because most of what we hear from the federal government is a lot of nice words, not a lot of actual action to reduce the threat, this is an initiative we felt we had to take before this year’s fishing and whale watching season,” said MacDuffie.

The fishing season begins in June and whale watching typically begins in May.

The coalition wants a response from the federal government within 30 days.

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