Conservationists call on minister to issue emergency order to save killer whales

VANCOUVER — Several conservation groups say the federal government’s failure to issue an emergency order reducing threats to endangered orcas off the B.C. coast ahead of fishing and whale-watching season could mean the species’ extinction.

The organizations say Fisheries Minister Dominic LeBlanc and Environment Minister Catherine McKenna did not recommend an emergency order to cabinet by March 1, which could have seen priority feeding refuges established, fishing restricted and speed reductions for commercial vessels put in place for the season.

“Their time is running out and we’re looking for concrete action to reduce threats, not just promises and not just more research,” said Misty MacDuffee, wild salmon program director for the Raincoast Conservation Foundation.

MacDuffee said Friday the situation is critical for the remaining 76 southern resident killer whales, adding that they have up to a 50 per cent chance of disappearing in the next century. The population has declined from a high of 96 in 1993.

She gave the mapping of potential foraging refuges as an example of an action that is useless without also keeping recreational fishermen and whale watchers out of those zones.

“They can’t just create a map and say, ‘Here are the areas that are important, these are the key areas,’ and then not do anything to reduce the threats that are occurring in those areas,” MacDuffee said.

Raincoast, Ecojustice, the David Suzuki Foundation, Georgia Strait Alliance, Natural Resources Defence Council and World Wildlife Fund sent a petition on the issue to LeBlanc and McKenna on Jan. 30.

Department of Fisheries and Oceans spokesman Vincent Hughes said the ministry is reviewing the petition and takes orca protection seriously.

The ministry is already doing several things to reduce threats to the species, he said, including spending $7.2 million on digital hydrophone and oceanographic technologies to monitor underwater noise.

It’s also working with the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority to conduct trial vessel slowdowns in the Haro Strait. On Friday, the Port of Vancouver said early results confirmed that commercial vessels participating in the trial produced less noise when they slowed down.

The ministry has also proposed fishing closures to reduce competition for chinook on a trial basis in four areas, including the mouth of the Fraser River, the west side of Pender Island, the south side of Saturna Island and in part of the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The trial is proposed for May to September, to coincide with the orcas’ expected foraging, according to a Feb. 15 discussion paper.

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