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New protections for southern resident killer whale ‘inadequate,’ scientist says

The launch of the Trans Mountain Pipeline will increase vessel traffic and make matters worse for the endangered species, researchers warn
Southern resident killer whales welcomed a new calf to the J-pod group in December, according to researchers in Washington. | Maya Sears

This year’s list of protections for the 75-member southern resident killer whale population is too little too late, according to an expert with decades of experience in conservation science.

The new marine regulations came into effect June 1, and were introduced at a press event in Vancouver on Monday.

The protections, put in place by Transport Canada, are designed to address the whale’s key threats: insufficient quantity and quality of prey, contaminants, as well as acoustic and physical disturbance, particularly underwater noise from vessels.

It’s these dangers that researchers have blamed for the rapid decline of the apex predator species. A study published in April showed southern resident killer whales are on track to be completely extinct in the next 75 to 100 years.

To help slow the decline, Transport Canada is mandating that most vessels must stay 400 metres away from all killer whales, and imposing a ban on impeding the path of the black-and-white cetaceans.

There are also voluntary slow-down zones near Swiftsure Bank – at the mouth of the Juna de Fuca Straight – and interim sanctuary zones off Pender and Saturna islands.

Over the past 14 years, the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority has operated its Enhancing Cetacean Habitat and Observation Program (ECHO), which conducts research and encourages the slowing of commercial shipping vessels passing through critical habitat of the southern resident killer whale.

At Monday’s press event, Minister of Energy and Natural Resources Jonathan Wilkinson revealed $3.2 million in federal funding over the next two years for ECHO.

“We continue this work because the strength of these federal measures and collaborations like the ECHO program have found significant success,” said Wilkinson, who’s also the Liberal MP for North Vancouver.

“For example, results from 2023 indicate that 86 per cent of traffic slowed down due to federal slowdown measures in the Swiftsure Bank, leading to significant underwater noise reductions,” he said.

Killer whale research and funding 'needed to be done previously'

But these measures have come far too late to be of much help to the dwindling southern resident population, said Paul Paquet, senior scientist with the B.C.-based Raincoast Conservation Foundation.

“It’s really inadequate,” he said. “These measures and the research that they’ve said that they’re going to be funding in the future, all of that needed to be done previously.”

For the public interpreting these regulations, Paquet said most of the rules are just re-hashed from previous years

“There’s some enhancements, and there’s some additional funding but there’s nothing really new,” he said.

What’s most concerning for the scientist is the increased tanker traffic from the Trans Mountain Pipeline, which began commercial operations on May 1.

It’s a concern for the federal government too, Paquet said. “They’re not saying that in these announcements, but they know that they are being criticized for a lot for recommendations that were made [but not followed].”

With so much pressure to get the $34-billion pipeline up and running, it’s a dilemma for the government, he said.

“But I wish they would be more forthright and acknowledge that what they are doing is going to adversely affect the killer whales, and likely will result in their extinction over time,” Paquet said.

“That might not be immediate. But certainly, that’s their future.”

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