Comment: Urgent action needed to aid threatened southern resident whales

We are at a crossroads. Climate change and environmental degradation are ravaging wildlife here in Canada and around the world.

The new World Wildlife Fund report released this week tells us there are sobering declines of biodiversity happening everywhere on the planet. Global wildlife populations have declined by 60 per cent on average in just over 40 years. This is true for us here at home.

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One of Canada’s most iconic creatures, the southern resident killer whale, is facing imminent and significant threats to survival and recovery. The population is on the decline. It has gone from a high of 97 whales in 1996 to just 74 today.

Southern resident killer whales face threats in three key areas: limited chinook salmon to eat; noise disturbance from vessels; and pollution in the water.

While Canada has a Species at Risk Act that was intended to provide protection for at risk species, this act has not — as implemented to date — stopped the decline in biodiversity in this country.

At the end of the day, to stop such declines in biodiversity will require swift action that also takes into account businesses and industry that depend on a clean and healthy environment.

Over the past two years, our government has brought forward significant measures aimed at addressing each of the threats to the whales, most notably in our 2016 Ocean Protection Plan and in 2018 our $167-million Whales Initiative. These measures included:

• A reduction in chinook harvest levels and fisheries closures in areas of critical habitat;

• Adjustments to marine transportation — including moving shipping lanes away from key foraging areas, vessel slowdowns to reduce shipping related noise, and putting in place a buffer zone/distance limit for whale-watching and recreational boats; and

• Action on contaminants — including reducing discharge of pollution from wastewater and investing in additional research.

This week, we took another step forward by announcing additional significant actions. These new measures come with an additional $61.5 million to assist with effective implementation.

New comprehensive and unprecedented measures announced this week include:

• New areas of critical habitat for the whales will be identified and protected;

• Important investments aimed at protecting and recovering chinook salmon stocks;

• The size of vessel slowdown areas will be increased;

• We will develop collaborative arrangements with commercial shippers and B.C. Ferries aimed at formalizing current voluntary noise-reduction measures;

• We will be launching a Quiet Vessel Innovation Initiative to help fund the deployment of vessel-quieting technology;

• We will expand vessel-monitoring systems to develop real-time ability to avoid whale encounters;

• We will be providing funding to Ocean Wise for the development of a Whale Report Alert App;

• We will be advancing work on one or more southern resident killer whale sanctuaries;

• We will enhance regulatory control of five key pollutants impacting these whales; and

• We will be working actively with U.S. partners — at both federal and state levels — to harmonize protection measures on both sides of the border (which is critical given the migratory patterns of the whales).

Our government is taking action in partnership with businesses, environmental organizations, scientists and Indigenous Peoples.

We will make sure that these measures are in place by the time the southern resident killer whales return to Canadian waters in greater numbers in the spring.

Taken together, this suite of new measures represents a bold initiative that addresses, on an urgent basis, all three key threats to these iconic whales.

This is a reflection of this government’s commitment to protecting and enhancing biodiversity in Canada.

Jonathan Wilkinson is Canada’s minister of fisheries and oceans, and Marc Garneau is the federal minister of transportation.

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