Conservation groups are applauding an announcement on May 24 from Minister of Fisheries and Oceans Dominic LeBlanc and Minister of Environment and Climate Change Catherine McKenna declaring endangered Southern Resident killer whales (SRKW) face “imminent threats” to their survival and recovery.
Southern Resident killer whales are a genetically and culturally-distinct population of salmon-eating orca whales who hunt, socialize, and raise their young in the Salish Sea, a region that includes the Juan de Fuca Strait, Georgia Strait, and Puget Sound.
Prompted by this assessment, the ministers also announced immediate fisheries closures in key Southern Resident foraging areas. Environmental representatives, including Megan Leslie, president and CEO of WWF-Canada, applaud the declaration, but recognize fisheries closures are only one step in what must become a multi-faceted plan.
“The announcement of fisheries closures in areas where the whales feed will help, but we strongly urge the government to implement further restrictions on recreational and whale-watching vessels in these foraging areas,” said Leslie. “The benefits of these fisheries closures will be limited unless disturbance from all vessels is reduced.”
Michael Jasny, director of marine mammal protection at Natural Resources Defense Council agreed more action is required. “This revered and iconic population of whales is threatened six ways to Sunday, and establishing fishing closures – while an important step – won’t be enough to bring them back. Now that it has acknowledged the threat, it’s time for the government to issue an emergency order to address shipping noise, contaminants, and the other problems that are driving the whales to extinction.”
Faced with declining populations of Chinook salmon, their primary source of food, the Southern Residents are suffering nutritional stress and are at serious risk of malnutrition and starvation.
Jeffery Young, senior science and policy analyst at the David Suzuki Foundation said protecting the Chinook salmon foraging areas Southern Resident killer whales depend on is critical. “After years of inaction, I look forward to expanding the desperately needed safeguards,” said Young. “We need to protect key foraging areas the government missed and ensure a minimum number of Chinook salmon return to spawn.”
In January, Ecojustice, on behalf of David Suzuki Foundation, Georgia Strait Alliance, Natural Resources Defense Council, Raincoast Conservation Foundation, and World Wildlife Fund Canada, petitioned the ministers for emergency protection for the whales under the federal Species at Risk Act.
The announcement responds to that request. It also means the ministers are now legally obligated to recommend that the federal Cabinet issue emergency protections for the whales, the groups say.
Dyna Tuytel, lawyer at Ecojustice, said the ministers’ declaration points to a clear legal framework. “[They] have officially declared threats to the Southern Resident Killer Whales’ recovery ‘imminent,’ and so the law is black and white,” said Tuytel. “The Species at Risk Act requires that the ministers recommend an emergency order to protect these endangered whales.”
Under Section 80 of the Species at Risk Act, emergency orders empower the government to take a broad range of actions to protect a species and its habitat when it faces imminent threats to its survival or recovery.
While the measures announced partially address concerns over orca prey availability, further action is still required to fully protect the orcas against the three main threats they face: reduced availability of Chinook salmon, acoustic and physical disturbance from vessels, which interferes with their ability to hunt and communicate, and pollution. For example, the groups say whale watching should be restricted in key orca foraging areas.
“The recognition of the urgent critical state of this population is a long overdue step in finally getting the needed and urgent protection these whales require to remain an important part of the Salish Sea for generations to come,” said Christianne Wilhelmson, executive director of Georgia Strait Alliance. “We look forward to hearing more from the government related to other threats to this species.”
Only 76 members of the SRKW population remain, and no successful births have been documented since 2015. Lacking protective safeguards, the likelihood of the Southern Residents becoming extinct is high because their population size is small and their critical habitat in the Salish Sea has been degraded.
“The Trudeau government has finally acknowledged that multiple human caused threats to Canada’s endangered Southern Resident killer whales place the whale population in imminent danger, seriously jeopardizing their continuing survival and recovery,” said Dr. Paul Paquet, senior scientist, Raincoast Conservation Foundation. “We now expect that comprehensive and effective regulatory actions to protect the whales will be immediately forthcoming.”
For media inquiries
Jeffery Young, Senior Science and Policy Analyst | David Suzuki Foundation
Dyna Tuytel, Lawyer | Ecojustice
Christianne Wilhelmson, Executive Director | Georgia Strait Alliance
Michael Jasny, Senior Policy Analyst | Natural Resources Defense Council
Chris Genovali, Executive Director, Raincoast Conservation Foundation
firstname.lastname@example.org, 250-655-1229 x225
Megan Leslie, President and CEO | WWF-Canada
Contact Catharine Tunnacliffe, email@example.com, 1-647-624-5279