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Are Our Southern Resident Orcas Doomed?

As pipeline expansion looms, Ottawa unveils new protection plans. Critics are skeptical.

Andrea Smith 13 Nov

Andrea D. Smith is an intern with The Tyee as a part of Journalists for Human Rights’ Emerging Indigenous Reporter program. Contact her here.

Only 74 southern resident killer whales remain in the water off the Pacific Coast. In 1996, there were 97. Their future is desperate.

This summer, Tahleqhua, orca J35, carried her dead baby through the Salish Sea for 17 days before finally letting it go. Two more whales died soon after.

Are we doing enough to save them?

Fisheries and Oceans Minister Jonathan Wilkinson has just announced another $61.5 million in funding to protect the endangered southern residents. That’s on top of a previously announced five-year, $167.4 million initiative aimed at improving prey availability and reducing disturbance to the whales.

But critics say the measures don’t go far enough to address the extinction facing southern resident killer whales. And they warn that by pushing ahead with the Trans Mountain pipeline, which would increase tanker traffic sevenfold, the government is adding to the threat to the killer whales.

Wilkinson, the MP for North Vancouver, said the government hoped all or most of the new protection measures would be in place by the time the whales return from their wintering grounds next spring.

While the government has taken “considerable action” to help the southern residents survive, he said, [the new] “bold and unprecedented actions represent a major step forward in addressing key concerns.”

Transport Minister Marc Garneau made it clear the measures were linked to the Trans Mountain pipeline project. The Federal Court of Canada overturned the government’s approval for the project in August, in part because of the failure to consider the impact on killer whales.

“With the Whales Initiative, we committed to going above and beyond mitigating noise impacts of additional tankers that would come from expansions of the Trans Mountain pipeline,” he said recently. “Today we launch additional measures to address noise reduction and to address increasing vessel traffic on the coast.”

The government’s strategy aims to address the three major threats to the southern residents’ survival: Falling stocks of chinook salmon, the whales’ principal food; noise from recreational and commercial vessels that interferes with the whales’ ability to hunt; and contaminants in the water.

The government has already closed some areas to fishing to ensure the killer whales have access to chinook salmon. Since May, the government says it has reduced chinook fishing by 25 to 35 per cent around the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the Gulf Islands and the mouth of the Fraser River. The new plans say potential expansions of these areas might be considered.

The list of policies to be implemented includes:

Garneau also said the government would look at speeding up plans for a new water treatment plant at Iona Island in Richmond, currently slated to be done in 2030. The existing plant released about 574 million litres per day of “under-treated” water in 2017, according to federal officials.

Wilkinson said the situation is dire, noting this month’s report by the World Wildlife Fund that found Canada and the world were experiencing a biodiversity crisis.

But not everyone agrees the government’s measures will be enough to save the whales.

Ecojustice — an environmental law non-profit that represents other environmental non-profits in court — launched a lawsuit against the DFO and the Minister of Environment and Climate Change in September. The lawsuit argued that a national “emergency order” should be declared for the orcas under the Species at Risk Act.

This can be done for any species that faces “imminent threats to its survival or recovery.” It would allow the government to take extreme action to save the creatures.

But a few days after the new $61.5-million funding was announced for the whales, the Canadian government also officially refused to grant the emergency order. Ecojustice dropped the lawsuit, but is still considering future litigation if the government’s actions by April 2019 are not bold enough.

Christianne Wilhelmson, executive director of the Georgia Strait Alliance, a client of Ecojustice, said the government actions still fall short of the response demanded in their September lawsuit, and measures to protect the whales are long overdue.

“The reality is some of these things should have started 16 years ago, but we can’t go back in time… The fact that they put a timeline out to the public is big,” she said. “They recognize that a lot has to change before the whales come back. They cannot come back to an environment that’s just as noisy, where there’s a lack of chinook.”

The key issue is the lack of chinook salmon, she said, but noise and contaminants also need to be addressed. She added that one area of critical habitat was identified on the west side of Vancouver Island in spring 2017, but only in the past few months has the government moved toward creating rules to protect it. Public consultations ended Nov. 3, and a decision whether to make the declaration official is yet to be made. Even then, it won’t mean people can’t use it, but it will be a step in the right direction, she said.

Ultimately, the new government plans are promising, but lack detail, added Wilhelmson.

Misty MacDuffee, wild salmon program director for the Raincoast Conservation Foundation, also a client of Ecojustice, agrees real action is needed now.

The government is still sugarcoating the damage that would be done by increased tanker traffic as a result of the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, she said.

MacDuffee estimated the southern resident killer whales are dealing with boat traffic 85 per cent of the time. Even with area closures and new rules, that will increase to 95 per cent of the time if tanker traffic increases, she said.

Noise disturbance affects the orcas in multiple ways, reducing their ability to communicate with each other or use echolocation to navigate and hunt. They also change their swimming patterns — even while hunting prey — to avoid boats. This will continue to be a problem unless more extreme action is taken, she said.

“These whales need to be able to forage effectively. They also need to be able to rest. They also need to be able to socialize. So, when they’re in the constant presence of vessels, all those things are impacted,” she said.

“We know exactly what they’re threatened with, and what we need to do, we just need to do it,” she added.

Mark Leiren-Young is the author of The Killer Whale Who Changed the World, written about Moby Doll, the second orca to be captured and placed in a public aquarium. He is also a vocal opponent of the Trans Mountain expansion and questions whether the government is making any real progress with the new plans.

It’s positive that some effort is being made, he said.

But like Ecojustice, he’s concerned the changes won’t be enough to reverse the southern resident killer whale’s decline, and that this is all a façade to calm fears around the pipeline.

“The question that I still want to throw out there… does this actually mitigate the significant adverse effects of the tanker traffic or is this just a very expensive Band-Aid?”

“They need to go back to the same people who informed the National Energy Board that these orcas would suffer significant adverse effect — a.k.a extinction — if the pipeline was expanded… I’m not seeing any reference to going back to that original report and whether this changes that assessment,” he said.

Leiren-Young currently reports on this issue and makes it the focus of his podcast.

He said none of the experts and academics he has asked have said the whales could survive additional threats. And he questions how exactly any new rules would even be enforced.

Peter Hamilton runs Lifeforce, a marine mammal advocacy organization.

His group has been petitioning the government for greater protection for orcas for decades, and he’s become a vigilant watchdog, scanning the sea near Comox, B.C., for boaters breaking the current rules protecting whales from harassment.

The federal government increased the space boaters are required to give killer whales from 100 metres to 200 metres this summer. But Hamilton still sees people break this rule. He often reports infractions and sometimes sees positive change as a result.

“The lone orca that was in the Comox Harbour here for a week, one of the problems we had with boaters was from the sea cadet training program,” he said.

“I found out that the sea cadet program in Canada does not include marine mammal regulation, and how to safely operate boats around whales and dolphins,” he said. “The supervisor said they don’t include that in their course, so now they’re going to.”

Meanwhile, at least one First Nation is concerned they aren’t being heard during all this.

While they are not against saving the orcas, they are against the government’s lack of consultation with them.

The Species at Risk Act sets out 60-day consultation windows, said Andrew Olson, fisheries manager and biologist for the Tseshaht First Nation on Vancouver Island.

“It puts First Nations at a significant disadvantage because DFO and the government has had a year — plus opportunity to spend money collecting data and information,” he said.

The Tseshaht are concerned about closing critical whale habitat to other uses. Some of the areas being discussed for future closures include locations Tseshaht members might expand into for commercial use, he said.

Tseshaht members already co-manage local fisheries with nearby commercial and recreational users, participating in weekly discussions all summer long.

And while they don’t interact with the southern resident killer whales much through whale-watching business or fishing, the orcas are part of their lives.

“For Tseshaht, in particular, they bring a significant value to their community. Not only economically, but culturally,” says Olson.

Story updated on Nov. 14 at 8:15 a.m.  [Tyee]

Read more: Environment

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