Protected areas, fishing closures, to help B.C.'s threatened southern resident orcas

Sanctuary zones on coast

Transport Canada has announced several new measures, ranging from sanctuary zones to fishing closures, as it works to protect critically endangered southern resident killer whales off the British Columbia coast.

The federal departments of fisheries, environment and transport issued a joint news release on Wednesday outlining what is described as a fifth consecutive year of strong action to protect and restore the southern resident population.

There are 10 measures this year, including mandatory 10-knot speed zones in two areas near Swiftsure Bank, northwest of Victoria, a rich feeding ground for the salmon the resident whales like to eat.

Commercial and recreational salmon fisheries will be banned this summer and fall throughout the waters of the southern Gulf Islands and there will be interim sanctuary zones restricting all vessels from two areas off Pender and Saturna islands in the southern Gulf Islands.

The endangered southern resident killer whales roam waters off British Columbia and the U.S. northwest. Their dwindling population sits at 73, according to data from the American Marine Mammal Commission.

From now until May 31, 2024, vessels are required to stay at least 400 metres away from all killer whales in southern B.C. coastal waters between Campbell River and Ucluelet, including Barkley Sound and Howe Sound.

The federal government said if whales approach, boaters should put their engine in neutral and wait for the animals to pass.

Transport Minister Omar Alghabra said in the statement that it's imperative efforts continue to ensure a quieter, safer environment for the iconic, vulnerable species.

The statement said that in the coming year, the fisheries department will be launching a consultation process to consider changes to approach distances for killer whales on the Pacific coast.

"Any potential changes to the marine mammal regulations will be based on partner and stakeholder feedback to date, as part of the consultation process to come as well as scientific advice," it said.

Fisheries Minister Joyce Murray said the whales are a symbol of Canada's Pacific and have cultural significance for coastal communities and Indigenous Peoples.

"The measures we are implementing in 2023 demonstrate Canada's commitment to protect these remarkable marine mammals and preserve their cultural and ecological significance," she said.

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