British Columbia

Parts of B.C. coast now closed to salmon fishing in effort to protect killer whales

The new closures include parts of Juan De Fuca Strait, the southern Gulf Islands and the mouth of the Fraser River.

New closures include parts of Juan De Fuca Strait, the southern Gulf Islands and the mouth of the Fraser River

Whale watchers get surprised by a orca leaping next to their boat. (Elaine Thompson/AP)

Federal officials have closed parts of the West Coast to salmon fishing in an effort to protect the endangered orca population.

The new closures, effective Friday, include parts of Juan De Fuca Strait, the southern Gulf Islands and the mouth of the Fraser River.

A female orca leaps from the water while breaching in Puget Sound west of Seattle. There are only 76 remaining southern resident killer whales in the endangered population. (Elaine Thompson/The Associated Press)

Details vary for each area, but in many cases, recreational fin fishing is completely banned in the areas from June 1 until Sept. 30, while commercial fishing for all salmon is banned.

New daily catch limits have also been put in place for chinook salmon in other North Coast and South Coast areas, along with restrictions on trolling in some areas.

Protecting chinook protects orcas

The closures are part of a larger program unveiled last week intended to reduce the total harvest for chinook salmon by 25 to 35 per cent. Chinook are the primary food source of the endangered southern killer whale population.

"Wild populations of chinook salmon have declined dramatically in recent years. This lack of prey has been a critical factor in the decline of southern resident killer whales." said a statement on the Fisheries and Oceans Canada website.

New rules will restrict commercial and recreation fishing in the foraging areas of the southern resident killer whales. (Elaine Thompson/Associated Press)

Conservationists and wildlife biologists have been calling for the closures for several years, but sport fishing organizations have expressed concern about the closures, saying other factors play a greater role in the decline of the chinook and killer whales.

According to Owen Bird, the executive director of the Sport Fishing Institute of B.C., tanker traffic along the West Coast is one of them.

He says it's ironic Ottawa has restricted salmon fishing, while opting to purchase the Transmountain Pipeline expansion — a project that would see increased West Coast tanker traffic, should it go through.

The tanker traffic could have an adverse effect on the resident killer whale population due to shipping noise, according to marine biologists. The acoustic smog interferes with whales' "exquisitely sensitive hearing," which they use to hunt prey, navigate the ocean and communicate.

"How can you address noise from the tankers when you're proposing increasing tanker traffic by three times?" said Bird. "It seems that possibly the DFO is motivated to make an optical gesture here to say 'we're doing our bit' because we can't possibly address the other factors that are at play here," he said.

The latest estimates put the total population of southern resident killer whales at 76.

With files from Jon Hernandez

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