Salmon fishery closures won't save orcas, say struggling charter companies

Charter fishery in trouble

Recreational fishers say they are easy targets in a federal plan for fishing closures and tight regulations on chinook salmon this year to protect the southern resident killer whales’ principal food source.

“We’re the low-hanging fruit,” says Peter Hovey, who operates Trailhead Resort and fishing charters in Port Renfrew. “We take so little of the [overall] catch, but they have to take a swing at somebody.”

For the third year in a row, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans has ordered fishery closures and strict regulations for whale watchers and other vessels to protect the critically endangered southern resident population of orcas, whose ­numbers remain low at 75 in three pods.

The measures focus on the main threats to the orcas, aiming to protect access to chinook salmon stocks and limit acoustic and physical disturbances and contaminants.

The commercial and ­recreational salmon fishery will be closed in portions of ­Swiftsure Bank from July 16 to Oct. 31, and in areas of the Strait of Juan de Fuca from Aug. 1 to Oct. 31. Retention of Chinook isn’t allowed between April and July for much of the south coast.

New this year is a closure protocol for commercial and recreational salmon fisheries in the southern Gulf Islands. ­Closures there will be triggered by the first confirmed presence of southern resident killer whales in the area.

Monitoring for the whales will begin in the area June 1 using aircraft, boats, the University of Victoria’s Ocean Networks ­Canada system of sensors and DFO’s new marine mammal desk in Sidney, said Terry Beech, parliamentary secretary to the minister of fisheries and oceans and a Burnaby MP.

If a southern resident killer whale sighting is confirmed, the fishery will be shut down and remain closed until Oct. 31.

Distancing measures will also be enforced. Vessels will be ­prohibited from ­approaching any killer whale within 400 metres in coastal waters between ­Campbell River and Ucluelet, including Barkley and Howe Sound.

Three interim sanctuary zones off Pender and Saturna islands and at Swiftsure Bank will also resume from June 1 to Nov. 30. No vessel traffic will be permitted in these areas, with exceptions for emergency and Indigenous vessels.

For recreational fishers, the closures — and the rule against retention of chinook from April to July over the past two years — have been difficult. Chinook are the premium sports fish, valued for their meat and vigorous fight. Charter companies say without the prospect of chinook during prime months, customers often balk at booking, though other salmon and sport fish are plentiful.

Bob Meyer, who has operated Silver Blue fishing charters on Gabriola Island for 35 years, said B.C.’s sports fishery injects about $1 billion a year into the economy.

Last year was the first year he lost money, the result of a combination of non-retention rules and closures on chinook and the fallout from COVID.

“April, May and June is the very best fishing, but with ­non-retention, business was down 25% two years ago and last year it was disastrous with that and COVID,” Meyer said.

“Honestly, the orcas are my favourite creatures … and if I thought this would save them, I’d tie up my boat and quit.”

Both Meyer and Hovey believe there is much more at play than fishing in the southern resident orcas’ tenuous hold on survival, including toxins and pollutants that are retained in the whales’ bodies and severely affect their health and ability to eat.

Sewage, dumping from vessels, pollution and degradation of spawning rivers and tributaries, as well as increasing freighter traffic, are all threats to the orcas, they say.

“If [the orcas] spend their entire time in front of Victoria or in one area, they will never make it,” Hovey said. “They have to move and I think that’s why you’re seeing them in other places now.”

More BC News