The federal government is spending $167.4 million to support the protection and recovery of southern resident killer whales, the North Atlantic right whale and the St. Lawrence Estuary beluga whale.

Canada’s Whales Initiative, which was announced Friday in Vancouver by Federal Transport Minister Marc Garneau, is set to protect and support the recovery of the three species.

Garneau said the federal government recognizes the southern killer whale in the Salish Sea “faces an imminent threat to survival and recovery, which requires immediate action.” Last week, the Center for Whale Research, based in Friday Harbor, Wash., said a southern resident killer whale known as L92 is presumed dead. The death brings the total number of southern resident killer whales down to 75, which is the lowest count since the early 1980s.

“It is a fragile species,” Garneau said.

“It doesn’t have a high reproduction rate. Obviously from our point of view, we don’t want to see the numbers go down anymore but it’s going to take time for us to see them grow.”

The government plans on addressing the main threats those whales face including lack of prey, disturbance from vessels, including noise and pollution from land-based sources.

According to the government, the key actions that will be implemented are:

  • Reducing the total fishery removal for Chinook salmon by 25-35 per cent, to help increase prey availability;
  • Implementing mandatory fishery closures in specific areas where  whales forage for food by closing these areas to recreational fin fishing and commercial salmon fishing and exploring the use of additional regulatory measures; and
  • Increasing scientific research, monitoring and controls of contaminants in whales and their prey, and funding additional research on prey availability.
  • Imposing a new mandatory requirement for all marine vessels (including recreational boats) to stay at least 200 metres away from killer whales, effective July 11, 2018;
  • Asking vessels to move further away from key foraging grounds within shipping lanes of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, with the help of the U.S. Coast Guard, and partnering with the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority Enhancing Cetacean Habitat and Observation (ECHO) program on a voluntary vessel slowdown in Haro Strait starting in July 2018;
  • Working with BC Ferries to develop a noise management plan to reduce underwater noise impacts of its fleet on killer whales; and
  • Developing the necessary tools to implement mandatory measures where needed to reduce noise from vessel traffic, such as legislation if required.
  • Adding to the under-water hydrophone network in the Salish Sea to better measure noise impacts and track the noise profile of individual vessels; and
  • Increasing aerial surveillance patrols through the Transport Canada?s National Aerial Surveillance Program, and Fisheries and Oceans Canada?s Fisheries Aerial Surveillance and Enforcement Program to better monitor and enforce new measures.
  • Investing in education and awareness among recreational boaters to reduce their impact on the whales by providing, for example, the Cetus Research and Conservation Society with  funding of up to $415,000 for three years to deliver the Straitwatch program;
  • Adding more fishery officers on the water to verify compliance with approach distances and disturbances and harassment provisions of the regulations and enforce fisheries closures; and
  • Enhancing strong enforcement of environmental regulations to reduce contaminants affecting the killer whales.
Parts of the action list have been highlighted in other announcements.

Last fall, Fisheries Minister Dominic LeBlanc said there would be regulations this year to ensure vessels stay at least 200 metres away from southern resident killer whales. Then in March, the federal government announced more than $12 million in new funding for research to protect southern resident killer whales. LeBlanc also said in May that there were plans to cut the allowable catch of Chinook salmon by 25 to 35 per cent.

Conservation groups have argued that the $7.4-billion Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, which will take oil from Alberta to B.C. for global markets and increase coastal tanker traffic, will push the southern resident killer whales to the brink of extinction.

The Canada’s Whales Initiative is part of Canada’s $1.5 billion Ocean Protection Plan.

Southern resident killer whales, including this calf, were seen near Pender Island on June 12, 2018. Photo Credit: Jackie Cowan.

Southern resident killer whales, including this calf, were seen near Pender Island on June 12, 2018. Photo Credit: Jackie Cowan.

Alexa Huffman