Action needed now to restrict vessels in critical killer whale habitat, scientists warn
Government action is needed now, on an emergency basis, to restrict vessels within the critical habitat of endangered southern resident killer whales, marine scientists warned Thursday in Vancouver.
"There are some short-term things that can be done — they're practical, well-supported and cautionary," Vancouver Aquarium whale researcher Lance Barrett-Lennard told a federally sponsored symposium on the killer whales. "We'd better stop talking about them and start doing them."
John Ford, an emeritus federal scientist who now teaches at the University of B.C., agreed that sport fishing and whale-watching boats can physically interfere with the whales' ability to hunt, including their key summer prey, chinook salmon.
"They need space," he said. "If there is a flotilla of boats around them, no matter what (the boats are) doing ... they represent physical obstacles in these key spots."
In Washington state, there is a strict law that prohibits boats from approaching killer whales within 200 yards, yet on the B.C. side of the Salish Sea, there is only a guideline of 100 metres and a hard-to-prove prohibition against harassing or disturbing the whales.
Barrett-Lennard said it is time for Canada to adopt similar restrictions and for governments to rein in the commercial whale-watching industry, based out of areas such as Victoria, Vancouver, Seattle, and the San Juan Islands.
"I've seen tremendous improvements in the behaviour of the fleet," he said, noting whale-watch companies can be strong advocates for the whales. "Yet, the fleet has become so large ... that we have a situation that must be addressed."
Dan Kukat is a past president of the Pacific Whale Watch Association, which claims a regional economic impact of about $440 million US in 2014 , with six million passengers from all over the world paying to see the whales. "We create public awareness," he said. The association represents 32 companies on both sides of the border.
Kukat argued that the lack of chinook is a greater immediate risk to the killer whales. "Focussing on anything else is a distraction. If they don't have food, nothing else matters."
Ford said that the battle is not over to save the southern residents, noting that the population, currently at 76 individuals, dipped to 71 in 1974 due to captures for aquariums, and recovered to about 100 in the mid-90s.
"There is hope they can come back, but it's going to take some very serious actions to be implemented very quickly."
Andrew Trites, a professor in the Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries at UBC, said he believes there remains a "high probability" of the southern resident killer whales dying off. If that happens, the northern resident killer whales, which are doing well and already feeding, in part, off southern Vancouver Island, would benefit.
It is also possible that the southern residents never had a large population, he said, raising the question as to what the goal of a recovery program should ultimately be given the challenges the whales face in a heavily populated area.
Environmental groups expressed disappointment that the symposium did not lead to swift concrete action. "Threats to southern residents are well documented. To support recovery we need to be implementing tangible measures immediately," said Christianne Wilhelmson, the executive-director of Georgia Strait Alliance.
Federal Transport Minister Marc Garneau said at the symposium he is not currently prepared to impose tough new restrictions on shipping to help protect the southern resident killer whales.
He told reporters that "we're gathering the scientific evidence ... and then we'll take the necessary measures" to mitigate the effects on the whales.
"We're committed to protect this endangered species. Everything is on the table in terms of understanding ... and then making decisions on what action to take."
Options might include restrictions on speeds, shipping lanes, and measures to reduce noise levels. "The first thing you do is the science, understand the problem, and then take the necessary action."
Garneau noted that the federal government took action after an unusual number of deaths of endangered North Atlantic right whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence this past summer. Ottawa implemented a temporary mandatory slow-down of vessels 20 meters long or larger to a maximum of 10 knots in the area.
Garneau said the southern resident killer whales face a number of threats, including a lack of chinook salmon, their preferred prey, as well as toxins and pollution, and vessel noise and disruption affecting their ability to hunt and socialize.
He said it is important to first know the relative importance of vessel noise before moving forward with restrictions. "What is the principle culprit here having an affect on the southern resident killer whales? All of them, we suspect, play a role."
Peter Ross, head of the Vancouver Aquarium's Ocean Pollution Research Program, said there is a need for greater scrutiny of chemicals up front, rather than approving them for the marketplace and putting the onus on scientists to prove how dangerous they are.
"We have lots of chemicals on the market that are highly persistent, that don't break down."
He estimated it will take until 2090 before 95 per cent of the killer whales are safe from the effects of PCBs, an industrial coolant banned in Canada in 1977.
New research presented earlier at the symposium suggested that underwater noise from vessel traffic in the Salish Sea is reducing the ability of southern resident killer whales to hunt by 20 to 25 per cent.
Orla Robinson, manager of the Port of Vancouver's Enhancing Cetacean Habitat and Observation program, said that the research also suggests that large ocean-going ships are responsible for about two-thirds of that diminished hunting ability and whale watching about one-third.
Garneau pledged almost $20 million over five years to chart high-traffic ports such as the Kitimat, Prince Rupert, and the Port of Vancouver in the Fraser River along with other near-shore areas in B.C.
The money will allow the Canadian Hydrographic Service to increase surveys, and provide more detailed information on water levels, tides, currents, and high-resolution electronic navigation charts for mariners. The money is part of Ottawa's $1.5-billion Oceans Protection Plan announced in November 2016.
Recognizing the threat that pollutants and toxins pose to killer whales, the federal government is also investing $400,000 on a technical review of contaminants in wastewater to be conducted by Canadian Water Network.
The review will look at conventional and emerging contaminants in wastewater, and available technologies for mitigating risks, including recovery methods.
While the federal government says it is working on the noise issue, it also supports expansion of the Kinder Morgan oil pipeline which may lead to a seven-fold increase in tanker traffic. The federal Port of Vancouver is also pushing a $2-billion expansion of the container terminal at Roberts Bank in South Delta.