Why the federal government’s killer whale action plan isn’t going to cut it

British Columbia’s coast is home to many species that people recognize around the world, including the iconic Northern and Southern Resident killer whales. Though it’s hard to imagine what the coast would be like if this distinctively-patterned black and white species were to disappear entirely, the reality is it could happen in our lifetime — only 83 Southern residents remain in the waters of the Pacific Northwest.

But there is something that could help their survival: The implementation of an effective action plan that ensures necessary steps are taken to ensure recovery of killer whales.

Action plans are one of the key tools we have, under the Species at Risk Act (SARA), to help prevent the extinction of Canada’s wildlife. In order to be effective, the action plan must be based on the species’ recovery strategy, which identifies the critical habitat and biological features at-risk species need to survive and recover.  In the case of the killer whales, scientists have identified reduced prey availability, physical and acoustic disturbance, and environmental contamination, including from an oil spill, as the three primary threats to the whales’ survival and recovery.  Unfortunately, we have yet to see a proposed action plan that adequately addresses these threats.

Southern Resident Killer Whale critical habitat map

Image of critical habitat for Southern Resident Killer Whales by Fisheries and Oceans Canada

Back in 2014, we helped the David Suzuki Foundation, Georgia Strait Alliance, Raincoast Conservation Foundation and the Wilderness Committee submit extensive comments on a disappointing draft action plan for the recovery of the Northern and Southern Resident killer whales.

And it looks like the updated action plan released this summer still isn’t going to cut it.

We’ve again teamed up with David Suzuki Foundation, Dogwood Initiative, Georgia Strait Alliance, Greenpeace, Raincoast Conservation Foundation, Sierra Club of BC, and Wilderness Committee to submit comments calling for immediate action by the government. There is clear science-based evidence that tells us what needs to be done to ensure these whales are given the best shot at recovering. Now it’s up to the government to start acting on this evidence.

In what should have been a move toward concrete action to prevent the whales’ extinction and encourage recovery, the proposed plan instead calls for more monitoring and research about the plight of the species — at a time when population numbers are dangerously low.  The draft document admits that “the majority of activities in the plan focus on research”.

Below we identify some changes that could be made to give this action plan some teeth:

1. Ensure an adequate and accessible supply of the whale’s preferred prey — Chinook salmon

In recent years, Chinook salmon populations have continued to struggle under various stressors, including climate change. This is a big problem. The Southern Residents selectively hunt for Chinook salmon; their diets are 80-90 per cent Chinook during their time in the Salish Sea in the summer months. While there is no easy answer to increase salmon abundance, we know that we can take some first steps by reducing sport fishing and closing fisheries so that stocks have a chance to recover.

2. Stop chemical and biological pollution in critical habitat

Marine pollution is still an issue we fail to take seriously. Despite more than 20 years of talking about sewage treatment, the City of Victoria continues to dump untreated and contaminated effluent into the whales’ critical habitat. These marine pollutants that are dumped into our oceans, specifically in areas identified as critical habitat, can impact the whales’ reproductive and immune systems, and sometimes even lead to death. With low pod numbers, resident killer whales cannot afford to lose any members if the population is to survive.

The killer whale action plan needs to have targets and timelines in place to immediately ban the most common and toxic contaminants in our ocean and in killer whale habitat. It’s that simple.

3. Ensure that disturbances from human activities do not prevent killer whale recovery

We know that noise pollution makes it harder for whales to locate and hunt for fish — we also know that in the Salish Sea, up to 97 per cent of their communication space is lost during times of high traffic. Yet noise-inducing projects, like the Kinder Morgan pipeline, are still being considered for approval in their critical habitats. Salmon are scarce as it is for the whales, so we should not make life even harder by adding an extra barrier to their ability to find food.

Right now, the proposed action plan only calls for continued monitoring and research on human disturbances to killer whales. This passive approach to change has to be fixed. To do this, the government needs to start rejecting new projects that will increase shipping noise and then follow through with funding and prioritizing on-the-water enforcement and education programs that will help limit harmful interactions with marine vessels — like increased viewing distances for whale watching tour boats.

What you can do to help killer whales

Right now, our friends at the David Suzuki Foundation are encouraging people to send a letter to the government and let it know that there are actions that need to be taken right away to ensure these killer whales survive. But there isn’t much time left, the comment period closes this week!

Be sure to submit your comments by Sunday, August 14, 2016 and make your voice heard. The whales are counting on all of us to make sure they are given the best shot at sticking around.