Federal support for killer whales continues, researchers look into chinook decline

Eric Plummer, March 14, 2019

The federal government has committed almost $3 million towards research into three endangered whales, including southern resident killer whales on the West Coast. Pictured is a southern resident spotted off the coast of Washington State. (Wikimedia Commons-NOAA Photo Library)

Ottawa, ON — 

In its latest pledge to protect the endangered southern resident killer whale population, on Friday, March 8 the Government of Canada announced an initiative that will track the animals’ prey and monitor disturbances from vessels.

This is part of $2.9 million in research funding for three cetacean populations in Canada, including the North Atlantic right whale, the St. Lawrence Estuary beluga and the southern resident killer whale, which migrate between the California coast and southern Alaska. All three of these whale populations are listed as endangered under Canada’s Species at Risk Act.

The funding will be given to programs at the University of British Columbia, Dalhousie University in Halifax and the Université du Québec à Montréal for population recovery research.

“There is an urgent need to determine whether southern resident killer whales are getting enough to eat in British Columbia,” stated Dr. Andrew Trites of UBC’s Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries in a government news release. “Our research will answer this question by tracking the movements of fish and whales and determining the effects of environmental change, fishing pressure and vessel disturbance on nutritional status.”

At the current count of 74, southern residents have shown a gradual decline since the population peaked at 99 in 1995. Since 2001 their status has been endangered due to their small numbers and continued decline, according to criteria set by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada.

The southern resident decline has been linked to the shrinking stock of chinook salmon, which is the whales’ main food. But chinook also sustains northern resident killer whales, a population that has grown from 120 in 1974 to 309 currently.

The DFO began tracking the killer whales’ populations 45 years ago after it banned the live capture of orcas for aquariums. Over this period the southern residents grew from approximately 70 to 99 in 1995, then declined. Northern residents also saw a population decline in the late ‘90s, but these whales were able to recover.

Sheila Thorton, a research scientist with Fisheries and Oceans Canada, attributes this difference in population recovery to the whales’ migration range. Northern residents move between mid-Vancouver Island and Alaska, an area in the vicinity of fewer people than the southern residents’ range.

“The degree of threats is likely elevated for the southern residents, they’re subjected to greater physical and acoustic disturbances,” said Thorton. “The southern residents are subjected to vessel traffic and the shipping lanes.”

Another hindrance to the southern residents is that the chinook they feed on have higher levels of contamination, including PCBs (Polychlorinated Biphenyls) that were once widely used for industrial products. According to Health Canada, the manufacturing and importing of these chemicals has been banned in North America, but they remain in the environment for several decades.

Thorton said higher traces of these contaminants are found in chinook salmon that come from streams near metropolitan areas.  

“Because the majority of the stocks that the [southern resident] killer whales are foraging on are returning to streams that are close to metropolitan centres, the fish that they’re foraging on are more likely exposed to greater contaminants,” she said. “We are seeing decreases in the contaminant load, but it will take quite a few years for those to be less of a factor in the ecosystem.”

In a measure to protect northern and southern resident killer whales, this year the DFO expanded the species’ critical habitat to include a large block west of Barkley Sound, covering Swiftsure and La Perouse banks, as well as patch north of Haida Gwaii. This brings an additional 6,419 square kilometres of critical habitat to what was previously declared around southern and northeastern Vancouver Island, tying these areas to SARA protection.

Although more stringent harvest limits are yet to be announced, many expect the new critical habitat will affect chinook fisheries this year. The issue was discussed during a Council of Ha’wiih Forum on Fisheries in Campbell River in late February, where some delegates expect thousands of sports fishing vessels will move north to Clayoquot Sound and beyond this year to avoid the new critical habitat area.

“I was telling DFO that they’d better have a plan in place, because all they’re doing is moving the effort north beyond Ucluelet up the coast,” said Ahousaht fisherman Andy Webster. “There’s already a lot of pressure up in the Esperanza and Kyuquot area. Talking to one of my friends from Kyuquot he was saying it’s harder and harder to get rockfish and halibut for their food and ceremonial.”

“We’re trying to save salmon for the whales, but all we’re doing is moving the fleet around,” said Andrew Jackson, fisheries manager for the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation. “You’re really not going to see any salmon come back.”

Several technical working groups have been established to help inform protection measures for the southern and northern residents, but during the fisheries forum Uu-a-thluk Program Manager Eric Angel stressed the need for the DFO to work with Nuu-chah-nulth nations on a long-term plan for the species.

“We need to be closely involved in this,” he said. “We’ve had to react in a hurry for something that’s manifested as a crisis. But knowing that it’s going to be a problem and an issue for many years to come, are you looking at setting up some sort of permanent process for decision making around this?”

Another part of the national equation is the pending Trans Mountain expansion, a project that the federal government purchased which would nearly triple the pipeline’s capacity to transport petroleum to the West Coast. This is expected to bring a seven-fold increase in tankers leaving the Westridge Marine Terminal in Burnaby, according to Kinder Morgan, Trans Mountain’s previous owner.

“Canada wants to be seen doing things that are good for the environment and killer whales have a very high international public profile,” noted Angel. “There’s politics driving this too, especially when they want to bring more tanker traffic through here. They want to look good because they’re doing something for killer whales.”

Thorton said the federal department has been studying ways to limit the disturbance vessels can have on killer whale habitat, including working with shipping companies.

“They have been wholly supportive in undertaking mitigation options and participating in trials that help us to identify which mitigations options are most effective,” she said. “Ultimately what we’d like to see is quieter vessels - and that’s got to go right back to engineering standards - to an understanding of how vessels create noise in the environment and how we can mitigate that right from the source.”

Fisheries and Oceans Canada plans to hold public meetings on protecting northern and southern resident killer whales this spring in some Vancouver Island cities.