'I am superbly worried': West Coast fishermen await decision on restrictions meant to protect orcas

A year after the Department of Fisheries and Oceans closed off several West Coast sports fishing area to protect orcas, fishermen say they're worried more closures are on the way along the southern Vancouver Island.

Marine mammal expert Andrew Trites says there is little evidence to support fishing closures to help orcas

There are only 74 southern resident killer whales that remain. (Fisheries and Oceans Canada)

A year after the Department of Fisheries and Oceans closed off several West Coast sports fishing area to protect orcas, fishermen say they're worried more closures are on the way along southern Vancouver Island. 

In 2017, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans closed several areas in the Juan de Fuca Strait to commercial and sport fishing between June and October.

The closure was part of the DFO's efforts to protect a dwindling population of about 74 southern resident killer whales that feed on chinook salmon, which inhabit those waters in that time period.

Ryan Chamberland, president of the Sooke Region Tourism Association and owner of the Vancouver Island Lodge, says more closures would devastate the small fishing villages along the coast.

"Closing us down — ruining towns, everyone losing equity in their assets and properties, is not going to solve an issue, it's going to create a crisis," Chamberland said.

"No one wants to lose their houses and jobs and and their way of lifestyle and opportunities to be on the water."

The concerns of sports fishermen come at a time when some marine mammal experts say the closures might not even help the endangered southern resident killer whale.

Ryan Chamberland, owner of the Vancouver Island Fishing Lodge in Sooke, B.C., fishes mostly for salmon and halibut. (Ryan Chamberland)

In November, Ottawa announced it wants to establish new areas of critical habitat off the west coast of Vancouver Island for southern resident killer whales — the Swiftsure Bank in the Juan de Fuca Strait between Vancouver Island and Washington state, and La Perouse Bank off Tofino, B.C. 

The DFO says it has consulted on the the critical habitat areas and it's still planning what fishing restrictions, if any, may be applied next year. Ottawa says designating the area as a critical habitat would also enable it to restrict other activities like whale watching and marine traffic, which some argue disturbs the orcas.

Chamberland was at the Sport Fishing Institute of British Columbia's annual conference in Vancouver on Thursday, where he says more potential closures were a hot topic.

According to the institute, sport fishing contributes more than $1 billion to the provincial economy each year. 

"I am superbly worried," he said. "West Coast communities fully depend on the sport fishing industry."

Effectiveness in question

Andrew Trites, director of the University of British Columbia's Marine Mammal Research Unit, was also at the conference.

Trites says there isn't enough evidence to support the view that banning sport fishing has any impact on the southern resident killer whales. 

"I think the intended goal is is all well and good. But I am a bit concerned that management actions are be being put into place without any attempts to determine whether or not they're effective," he said. 

Trites doesn't deny that the southern resident orcas have a food problem — evidence shows that they are thinner than their cousins, the northern resident killer whales.

But he says the more than 600,000 large chinook salmon estimated in the areas where the southern resident orcas roam should be more than enough to feed them.

Southern resident killer whales are genetically different from northern resident killer whales, which are thriving by comparison. (Valerie Shore/Shorelines Photography)

"The thing is that we tend to look at the food problem as being in our backyard," he said. 

When they're not swimming along southern Vancouver Island, Trite says, southern resident killer whales spend the rest of the year along the coast of Oregon and California, where salmon-bearing rivers have been destroyed, dammed or drained.

He says those rivers no longer have enough salmon to feed the killer whales.

There is still some debate about whether marine traffic is blocking the orcas' access to salmon, Trite says. But the DFO's restrictions last year didn't restrict marine traffic — just fishing. 

The DFO's restrictions around the Juan de Fuca strait last summer didn't include marine traffic. (Elaine Thompson/Associated Press)

Worldwide attention

The plight of the whales attracted worldwide attention last summer, after the female orca known as J35 spent 17 days carrying her dead calf as she travelled through West Coast waters.

Only 74 of them remain, and there have not been any documented successful births since 2015. The southern residents are genetically and behaviourally distinct from other killer whales in B.C., and feed primarily on salmon.

Several factors have been attributed to the orcas' slow demise, including lack of salmon, marine noise and inbreeding.

About the Author

Maryse Zeidler

@MaryseZeidler

Maryse Zeidler is a reporter for CBC News in Vancouver, covering news from across British Columbia. You can reach her at maryse.zeidler@cbc.ca.