British Columbia

Anglers' plan to feed endangered B.C. orcas given green light, but met with some criticism

A group of fishermen in British Columbia say the federal government has given them the green light for a project they say is designed to feed endangered killer whales. But it's a unique plan not everyone supports.

Vancouver Island fishermen's group says it has approval to deliver chinook salmon to endangered killer whales

A study released earlier this year says the diet of southern resident killer whales is more than 98 per cent chinook salmon. So a group of Vancouver Island fishermen are hoping to boost stocks for the West Coast's struggling orca pods. (Vancouver Aquarium/NOAA/Jamie Lusch)

A group of fishermen in British Columbia say the federal government has given it the green light for a project designed to feed endangered killer whales. But it's a unique plan that not everyone supports. 

In summer, southern resident killer whales usually travel around the inland waterways of B.C.'s Strait of Juan de Fuca and Strait of Georgia.

The J, K, and L-pod orcas are massive, majestic and endangered. They're also an important part of B.C.'s identity and tourism industry. But their numbers have dwindled to only 83 whales despite several new births in the last year.

Newborn orca J54 swims alongside its mother, J28, in Haro Strait in this 2015 file photo. (Dave Ellifrit/Center for Whale Research)

According to a study released earlier this year, more than 98 per cent of the whales' summer diet is chinook salmon, a stock also struggling along many areas of the West Coast.

So for the past two years, fishermen at the south end of Vancouver Island have had a somewhat wild plan in the works. They want to feed the whales by releasing young chinook salmon into the water.

"They're the top of the food chain in the marine environment. Them not being well is an indication that the whole of the marine environment isn't doing well," said Christopher Bos, president of the South Vancouver Island Anglers Coalition.

"If it's their preferred food that needs to be boosted, we as a society need to get on it and do it." 

Over the past few decades, the number of southern resident orcas has been as low as 70. Scientists say there are currently 83 members of the pods. (CBC)

The group says the Department of Fisheries and Oceans has given it the green light to buy and raise chinook at a hatchery in Port Alberni, B.C.

When they reach the correct size, the fish will be trucked to the Sooke River, near Victoria, for release. The fish will be tagged so their travel in the ocean can be tracked.

"Then DNA samples, scat samples, from the killer whales can be identified to see if those fish are being used in the opportunity of putting more food in the water for those southern killer whales," said Bos. 

Conservation group opposes plan 

The Raincoast Conservation Foundation is opposed to the idea and foundation biologist Misty MacDuffee says she is shocked DFO approved the plan. There are problems integrating hatchery salmon with wild salmon, she says.

"Competition on feeding grounds, dilution of gene pool on spawning grounds," MacDuffee said. "There's all sorts of subtle ways that hatchery and wild fish interact — and that usually comes with a cost to the wild fish."

A recreational fisherman holds a 24-pound chinook salmon he caught during a guided fishing tour. (The Canadian Press/Darryl Dyck)

But Bos disagrees.

"One of the unique things about doing this in the Sooke area is a lot of the things that would be related to genetic diversity, related to the transplanting of fish from different systems, none of that has any major bearing on the Sooke initiative," said Bos.

"A lot of those sort of scientific hurdles have been worked through just by the sheer fact that it's a unique environment and we can do this without any serious harm to any others stocks on the coast."

Fraser River restoration as key?

The Centre for Whale Research in Washington State has studied southern resident orcas for over four decades. 

Restoration of wild chinook stocks in the Fraser River is really what is needed...- Ken Balcomb , Center for Whale Research

Executive Director Ken Balcomb says anglers have been trying to put more chinook in the Sooke River for several years, but mostly for the benefit of sports fishermen, not killer whales.

In a written statement, Balcomb said that "...restoration of the wild chinook stocks in the Fraser River system is really what is needed to feed the whales. The Fraser is much larger and potentially a much greater producer of salmon than any of the Vancouver Island rivers."

The fishermen's project will be privately funded, with the first year costing $50,000, mostly to tag the fish. The anglers will release their first batch of 200,000 chinook next May.
Orca calf J50 is shown breaching in Swanson Channel, off Pender Island, B.C., last March. (Capt. Simon Pidcock/Ocean EcoVentures)

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.