Chinook salmon fishery cut to protect southern resident orca population

The federal government is getting mixed reactions to its plan to protect southern resident killer whales by protecting the orcas' primary food: Chinook salmon.

Allowable catch of Chinook to be cut by up to 35% to protect southern resident killer whales

The southern resident population has fallen to 76 individual animals that face threats from lack of prey, acoustic and physical disturbance, and pollution. (Valerie Shore/Shorelines Photography)

The federal government is getting mixed reactions to its plan to protect southern resident killer whales by protecting the orcas' primary food: Chinook salmon.

On Thursday, Fisheries Minister Dominic LeBlanc announced plans to cut the allowable catch of Chinook salmon by 25 to 35 per cent.

The number of southern resident killer whales has fallen to just 76 individual animals in recent years, and many have blamed a drop in the number of Chinook salmon.

Chinook salmon are the primary food source of southern resident killer whales. (Associated Press)

"We have determined that the species faces an imminent threat to its survival and recovery, and we need to keep taking concrete action," LeBlanc said in a statement released Thursday.

Conservation groups consider the move a win for the endangered population, which depends on a healthy Chinook population to survive.

"If we can limit access to the Chinook to orcas only and exclude other people for now, hopefully in the years to come, everybody will have access to the Chinook," said Christianne Wilhelmson, executive director of the Georgia Strait Alliance.

B.C.'s southern resident killer whales inhabit the waters from southern and central Vancouver Island to northern California, including the Strait of Georgia, Puget Sound, and the Strait of Juan de Fuca. (Elaine Thompson/Associated Press)

Sport fishing concerns

The decision is not without controversy though. The sport fishing industry in B.C. is one group that is anxiously awaiting more details on the cuts from Fisheries and Oceans Canada

"Human harvest of Chinook salmon is not what's at issue here. It's more to do with environmental circumstances," said Owen Bird, executive director of the Sport Fishing Institute of B.C.

Southern resident killer whales are listed as endangered species in both Canada and the U.S. (Elaine Thompson/The Associated Press)

The details of the protection measures have yet to be announced, but the minister said they will include:

  • Closures for recreational finfish and commercial salmon fisheries in portions of the Strait of Juan de Fuca and portions of the Gulf Islands.
  • Partial closures in the mouth of the Fraser River to protect key foraging areas.
  • Chinook fishery reductions across the B.C. coast including reduced harvest limits, size limits and time restrictions.
  • Select area closures to protect wild Chinook stocks of concern.
  • $9.5 million in funding for eight projects across B.C. to restore habitat for Chinook salmon.

Waiting for details

Bird expects more information about the specific cuts to the Chinook fishery to be released in early June and he hopes the limits will not be based on political pressure.

"The reaction will be anywhere from extreme if, for some reason, the measures are unnecessarily harsh," said Bird.

A newborn killer whale is shown swimming with other southern resident killer whales off the coast of Washington in 2006. (Center for Whale Research/Associated Press)

Southern resident killer whales are listed as an endangered species in both Canada and the U.S., and a federal recovery strategy was published in 2011 under the Species at Risk Act.

Their numbers fell significantly in the 1960s and early 1970s when approximately 47 orcas from the southern resident population were captured and relocated to aquariums.

With files from Meera Bains