Island Voices: Resident orcas are on the precipice

This past summer, the world’s attention was focused on the critically endangered southern resident killer whales that inhabit the Salish Sea and its outside coastal waters.

Tahlequah (J35) carried her dead calf for more than two weeks in a visible display of grief. At the same time, another young, infirm female, Scarlet (J50), was the focus of unprecedented Canadian and U.S. efforts to administer medication and food. The death of these whales was on the heels of another loss, Cruiser (L92), a whale who should have had decades of life ahead of him.

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Just before these events, the federal government determined that southern residents face “imminent risk of extinction” under present conditions. Mothers cannot sustain pregnancies, and individuals in their reproductive prime are dying. There is a large and growing body of evidence that the current levels of chinook-salmon abundance, ocean noise and disturbance, and polluted waters, create conditions that make population recovery for the southern residents untenable.

That said, there is hope if concrete action is taken now to address these threats. An analysis of population viability conducted by an international team of scientists examining whether recovery is possible shows that a 50 per cent reduction in existing noise levels, combined with substantive efforts to increase chinook abundance, could halt the decline and move this population toward recovery.

After years of legal, scientific and public outreach efforts requesting concrete action from federal agencies, Raincoast Conservation Foundation, David Suzuki Foundation, Georgia Strait Alliance, Natural Resources Defense Council and World Wildlife Fund-Canada, represented by Ecojustice, filed a lawsuit in September 2018 to compel the government to issue an emergency order to reduce threats to the southern residents. An emergency order is a legal tool that allows the government to cut through regulatory red tape and introduce wide-ranging protections for species at risk.

The federal government recently announced its refusal to issue an emergency order, despite the minister of environment and climate change and the minister of fisheries and oceans’ recommendation to do so.

Although we commend the ministers for recommending an emergency order be used, we are deeply disappointed that cabinet rejected what we believe to be the best available tool to recover these whales. Instead, the government has promised to take wide-ranging, yet vaguely defined, actions by April that we presume are intended to halt the decline and begin the recovery of these iconic whales.

To achieve these goals, however, we continue to call for enforceable and specific protection measures that improve chinook abundance, reduce vessel noise and disturbance, and regulate pollutants. Aggressive measures that will support whales being able to successfully feed in the Salish Sea by next spring include the following:

1. Create feeding refuges where commercial and recreational salmon fishing and whale-watching on southern resident killer whales are prohibited.

2. Close marine commercial and recreational chinook fisheries that catch mixed populations of chinook from southern B.C. and other populations important to the diets of southern residents.

3) Restrict commercial and private whale-watching on southern resident killer whales in critical habitat.

4) Set mandatory targets to reduce noise and disturbance from commercial vessels travelling in critical habitat and take steps to quantifiably reduce the cumulative levels of noise and disturbance from all marine traffic.

If southern resident killer whales are to live on in the Salish Sea, decisive steps producing substantive reductions in known threats need to be taken now. Proposed cure-alls such as more hatchery salmon and killing seals have little scientific basis, even though some might see these as solutions.

Harbour seals are believed to be competitors with humans for commercially valuable fish, but there is little evidence that decreasing the seal population increases the available fish catch. Ocean Wise marine mammal experts Drs. Peter Ross and Lance Barrett-Leonard have responded to the notion of a seal population “explosion” by pointing out “there has been virtually no change in seal numbers in B.C. in more than 20 years.” They also state “a seal cull could actually destabilize the coastal food web” and that declining chinook salmon abundance “is the result of a complex variety of factors and cannot be solely attributed to harbour seals.”

Through a suite of interactions, hatcheries are part of the reason that wild-salmon populations have failed to recover. Increased hatchery production would drive down the fitness of wild populations, further delaying or even preventing chinook recovery. Such proposals are symptomatic of the failure to address past mismanagement of chinook populations coast-wide and the hope that an industrial-technological solution will somehow solve a complex ecological problem.

Conversely, analysis by scientists has shown that letting migrating chinook salmon pass the hooks and nets of fisheries can improve survival rates of these whales.

The probability of killer-whale persistence declines with ongoing environmental degradation, loss of habitat, reduction of prey and decreasing population size. We believe it is essential for the federal government to take the bold measures necessary to restore southern resident critical habitat, halt the declining population, give the calves of the currently pregnant females in J and K pods their best chance at survival, and serve as the first steps toward killer-whale recovery.


Misty MacDuffee is a biologist and director of Raincoast Conservation Foundation’s wild-salmon program. Chris Genovali is executive director for Raincoast.

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