Protecting Southern Resident Killer Whales

How the Government of Canada is taking action to help this iconic species.

In Canada, the Salish Sea (the waters including the Strait of Georgia, Puget Sound, and the Strait of Juan de Fuca) and waters off the outer coasts of Washington State and Vancouver Island are home to the Southern Resident Killer Whales.

They’re highly social animals that live in stable, family-related groups called pods.

They’re iconic and awe-inspiring animals that are cherished by Canadians and visitors alike, and hold significant cultural value for Indigenous peoples.

Killer Whale. Orca. Dolphin.

Southern Resident Killer Whales have many names. They are sometimes called Orcas because of their scientific name Orcinus orca. They are also referred to as dolphins because they are members of the dolphin family.

Their size, distinctive black and white markings, and tall dorsal fin make them easy to distinguish from other whales and from each other.

Southern Resident Killer Whales are an endangered species and protected under the Species at Risk Act.

Only 74 of these whales remain in the wild.

They are facing imminent threat to both their survival and recovery, and they need our help.

Only 74 individuals of these whales remain in the wild.
Prey availability. Chinook Salmon is their main food source. Due to a variety of factors Chinook Salmon in British Columbia have experienced poor returns in recent years. Low availability of salmon means not enough food to eat, making it difficult for Southern residents to thrive. Copyright Shutterstock.

Prey availability

Chinook Salmon is their main food source. Due to a variety of factors Chinook Salmon in British Columbia have experienced poor returns in recent years.

Low availability of salmon means not enough food to eat, making it difficult for Southern residents to thrive.

© Shutterstock.

Vessel disturbance and noise. Vessels add to underwater noise and to physical disturbance. These whales use echolocation to communicate with each other, find prey and know their surroundings. Too much noise can make it hard for them to navigate, find food, and to communicate with each other. The physical presence of vessels near these whales disrupts their activities, such as feeding. Copyright Shutterstock.

Vessel disturbance and noise

Vessels add to underwater noise and to physical disturbance. These whales use echolocation to communicate with each other, find prey and know their surroundings. Too much noise can make it hard for them to navigate, find food, and to communicate with each other. The physical presence of vessels near these whales disrupts their activities, such as feeding.

© Shutterstock.

Contaminants. When Southern Resident Killer Whales eat fish that contain pollutants, the toxins build up in their bodies over time. High levels of pollutants and toxic chemicals can make whales vulnerable to disease and can cause reproductive difficulties. Copyright Shutterstock.

Contaminants

When Southern Resident Killer Whales eat fish that contain pollutants, the toxins build up in their bodies over time.

High levels of pollutants and toxic chemicals can make whales vulnerable to disease and can cause reproductive difficulties.

We’re examining the feasibility of accelerating the Iona Wastewater Plant upgrade.

© Shutterstock.

Video: Southern Resident killer whales need our help.

Video: Southern Resident killer whales need our help.

Protection of new habitat

These whales need habitat in which to live. They need space to socialize, feed and raise their young.

  • We’ve identified a new area of habitat vitally important to Southern Resident Killer Whales off the Southwestern Coast of Vancouver Island -including Swiftsure and La Pérouse Banks.
  • We are continuing progress on establishing this new area as Critical Habitat and protecting it under a Ministerial Critical Habitat Order through the Species at Risk Act.

© Shutterstock.

© Shutterstock.

Prey availability

We are making more food available for whales to eat.

  • In May 2018, we reduced the Chinook fishery in British Columbia by 25-35 per cent to help increase prey availability.

Strait of Juan de Fuca – Full closure: Full closures for recreational finfish and commercial salmon fisheries. Goal: To reduce disturbance from recreational and commercial salmon fishing vessels in key foraging areas, and increase availability of preferred prey.

Gulf Islands – Full closure: Full closures for recreational finfish and commercial salmon fisheries. Goal: To reduce disturbance from recreational and commercial salmon fishing vessels in key foraging areas, and increase availability of preferred prey.

Mouth of the Fraser River – Partial closure: Partial closures to allow recreational and commercial fishers to operate in certain portions of the area at specific times to harvest species other than Chinook salmon. Goal: To increase the availability of preferred prey, and limit disturbance from recreational and commercial fishers while facilitating some fishing opportunities to mitigate economic impacts.

To continue to help increase this important food source, in 2019 we are:

  • Examining further reductions of overall levels of Chinook Salmon fisheries for 2019 season, this includes the expansion of fisheries closures in key foraging areas
  • Identifying how to strategically rebuild and protect Chinook stocks

© Shutterstock.

© Shutterstock.

Vessel disturbance and noise

We’ve put in place new rules to keep vessels a safe distance away

  • In July 2018, we amended the Marine Mammal Regulations to include mandatory minimum approach distances for marine mammals
  • For Southern Resident Killer Whales, and all killer whales in Pacific waters, this means vessels must stay 200 metres away

We’re also working with the shipping industry to reduce underwater noise caused by ships and large vessels.

  • This summer, working with the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority Enhancing Cetacean Habitat and Observation (ECHO) program and the U.S. Coast Guard, we asked vessels to move further away from key foraging areas within shipping lanes of the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
  • We’re working with the program to ask vessels to slow down in Haro Strait, with a current participation rate of around 90 per cent.

Whales Initiative: Protecting the Southern Resident Killer Whale.

To further help address the threat posed from vessels we are:

  • Expanding requirements for Automated Identification System (AIS) to smaller vessels. This makes our waters safer and also helps to identify where whales might be disturbed by a concentration of vessels
  • Expanding the voluntary vessel slow-down zone to reduce underwater noise.
  • Completing Conservation Agreements with key industry stakeholders to formalize existing voluntary measures and seek commitments to take actions to reduce the threat of acoustic disturbance in support of the recovery strategy 
  • Supporting the development of the WhaleReport Alert System by Ocean Wise to provide real time information on whale locations so vessels can avoid disturbing them
  • Launching consultation with marine industry on development and implementation of Noise Management Plans
  • Coordinating closely with U.S. agencies in implementing and moving towards mandatory measures to reduce the impact of underwater vessel noise on Southern Resident Killer Whales

Contaminants. When Southern Resident Killer Whales eat fish that contain pollutants, the toxins build up in their bodies over time. High levels of pollutants and toxic chemicals can make whales vulnerable to disease and can cause reproductive difficulties. Copyright Shutterstock.

© Shutterstock.

Contaminants

We’re doing more scientific research and monitoring of contaminants in the water.

We’ll be strengthening regulatory controls for five harmful substances, including two flame retardants, to prevent them from entering the environment, including whale habitat.

We’re providing up to $423 million through the Investing in Canada long-term infrastructure plan to upgrade wastewater treatment plants in Victoria and North Vancouver, to meet the 2020 deadline these plants must stop discharging untreated or undertreated wastewater.

Research to support the protection of whales in Canadian waters.

We’re adding more fishery officers on the water to verify compliance with approach distances and enforce fishery closures

Start your adventure – become a Fishery Officer!

Transcript

Voice of Fishery Officer: When I was a kid, I remember how much fun it was to fish off the wharf.

It seemed like every time I’d walk along the shore, I’d find something cool.

Voice of Fishery Officer #2: But as time has gone by, pollution, misuse, more and more endangered species, and climate change affecting the entire ecosystem. All of this makes my work more important than ever.

Fishery Officer: I’ve been a fishery officer for 18 years. This is my office.

Fishery Officer #2): On the job, we patrol… we enforce… and we educate. You’ll find us on the coastal waters of 3 oceans and our lakes and rivers. An important part of our work is the protection of fish and fish habitat. We keep a close watch on Canada’s marine protected areas, where our focus is on protecting marine species and habitat, from the smallest aquatic creatures right up to and including whales.

We also do some pretty specialized intelligence work, including surveillance and undercover work.

A big part of the job is interacting with the fishers on a day to day basis. And one of the best parts of the job is when we work with kids, helping the next generation see the value our marine environment and why its future must be protected.

Fishery Officer #2: I got into this line of work initially because I love the outdoors and I care about the environment and that was my starting point… then I got all the training I needed.

Fishery Officer: 2: And that training is VERY thorough. You learn pretty quickly that being a fishery officer is physically and mentally demanding.

Fishery Officer #1: But the work is exhilarating and rewarding.

Everywhere we go, and in all that we do, our focus is doing everything we can to protect Canada’s future.

If you’re passionate about the fisheries and the environment…

and you want to make a difference…

this is an amazing career with real potential.

Oceans Protection Plan: World-leading marine safety – prevention and response

The Government of Canada is doing its part, but we can’t save the Southern Resident Killer Whales alone.

We’ll continue to work with our U.S. counterparts, Indigenous communities and researchers from across the country to learn more about these iconic whales, and what can be done to save them.

Together with the support of the shipping industry, local and commercial harvesters, tourism operators and people like you, we can help the Southern Residents recover and thrive.

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