Conservationists call for emergency order to save B.C.'s killer whales

Several conservation groups say the federal government's failure to issue an emergency order reducing threats to endangered orcas off the B.C. coast ahead of this year's fishing and whale-watching season could mean the species' extinction

Groups say situation is 'critical' for remaining 76 southern resident killer whales

Wildlife protection groups are calling on the federal government to take immediate action to improve orcas' access to salmon and reduce noise from commercial ships and tourist traffic. (Elaine Thompson/The Associated Press)

Several conservation groups say the federal government's failure to issue an emergency order reducing threats to endangered orcas off the B.C. coast this year could mean the species' extinction.

The organizations say Fisheries Minister Dominic LeBlanc and Environment Minister Catherine McKenna have not recommended an immediate emergency cabinet order which could establish priority feeding refuges, restrict fishing and reduce speed limits for commercial vessels this year.

'Time is running out'

"Their time is running out and we're looking for concrete action to reduce threats, not just promises and not just more research," said Misty MacDuffee, wild salmon program director for the Raincoast Conservation Foundation.

MacDuffee said Friday the situation is critical for the remaining 76 southern resident killer whales, adding that they have up to a 50-per-cent chance of disappearing in the next century. The population has declined from a high of 96 in 1993.

She said the mapping of potential foraging refuges is an example of an action that is useless without also keeping recreational fishermen and whale watchers out of those zones.

"They can't just create a map and say, 'Here are the areas that are important, these are the key areas,' and then not do anything to reduce the threats that are occurring in those areas," MacDuffee said.

Southern resident killer whales along the West Coast have struggled since they were listed as endangered species in 2005. (Dave Ellifrit/Centre for Whale Research)

Raincoast, Ecojustice, the David Suzuki Foundation, Georgia Strait Alliance, Natural Resources Defence Council and World Wildlife Fund sent a petition on the issue to LeBlanc and McKenna on Jan. 30.

The Department of Fisheries and Ocean was not immediately able to comment on Friday, but it identified similar priorities in a report released last month.

In the report, the department found that while some initiatives, like banning contaminants, have slowed the species' decline, but they aren't not enough. No concrete measures are in effect that take direct aim at reducing ship noise and improving the availability of chinook salmon — the whales' primary food — which would provide the best chance of progress in the near term, it said.

It is "critical" to focus on the orcas' key foraging areas, either by increasing the abundance of prey or reducing underwater noise so they can forage better, the report said. It should be a high priority in the immediate future to reduce competition from fishermen, as well as physical and acoustic disturbances. It also identified ship strikes as a new threat to the species.

'Trajectory to disappear'

The species is on a trajectory to disappear, unless further efforts are taken, the report said.

Research biologist Linda Nichol, one of the report's authors, said addressing threats to southern resident killer whales requires international co-operation with the United States, as well as participation from many stakeholders — including the shipping and whale-watching industries and both commercial and sport fishermen.

 On Friday, the Port of Vancouver released the interim results of its vessel slow-down trial, confirming that underwater noise from commercial vessels is reduced when they reduce their speed.