Peter Hamilton of Lifeforce Ocean Friends sent in this photo of a transient orca pod near Mitlenatch Island. With boating season upon us, Hamilton reminds boaters to keep a safe distance from orca pods. As of June 1, the boat distances between the southern resident killer whales (SRKWs) in Canada will increase to 400 metres. Photo courtesy Lifeforce Ocean Friends

Education first step in Canada’s new southern resident killer whale conservation mandates

Fisheries officers to enforce 400-metre rule in Salish Sea

Education and outreach will be the first steps in enforcing new boating regulations created to save the endangered Southern Resident orcas.

Under the Department of Fisheries and Oceans’ (DFO) new mandate, Canadian boats will soon have to keep a 400-metre distance from orcas in the Salish Sea, in an effort to lessen the effects of underwater noise pollution.

On May 10, the DFO announced enhanced measures for protecting the killer whales – which include the doubling of the mandated distance between vessels and resident pods – of which only 75 individual orcas remain.

Under the new policies, the 400-metre distance rule will apply to general vessel traffic – including both recreational boats and whale watching vessels – in the residents’ critical habitat, starting June 1.

And vessels – commercial and recreational – will want to take note.

Any person who contravenes the Fisheries Act could face a maximum fine of $100,000 and up to a year in prison if found guilty of the contravention.

But first comes a period of communication and education, says the DFO. Three dedicated fisheries officers will spend 100 per cent of their time focusing on the Southern Resident population – educating the public and enforcing the regulations.

“Outreach and on-water monitoring will be the main activity,” said Louise Girouard, DFO regional director of communications for the Pacific region. “Conservation and protection’s fishery officers will collaborate with Transport Canada’s Enforcement Group and relay information when deemed appropriate for enforcement actions to be taken by [Transport Canada’s] group.”

READ ALSO: Bigg’s orcas in the Salish Sea point to shifting habitat of resident killer whales

READ ALSO: Southern resident orcas spotted off the coast of California

Dr. David Bain, chief scientist of Washington State based non-profit Orca Conservancy, says reducing noise pollution is a vital step in protecting the endangered resident whales, suffering under the depletion of prey resources, increased acoustic disturbances and destruction of the natural salmon nurseries of the Salish Sea.

Resident Killer Whales rely on echolocation to catch their food, and interfering noise is damaging to their ability to catch salmon and ultimately, survive – especially in a habitat where salmon populations are already depleting.

“What we need is compliance,” Bain said, adding that it doesn’t matter to the whales if there is punishment for ignoring the mandated boundaries.

Also starting June 1, boaters must reduce their speed to slower than seven knots if they come within 1,000 metres of a pod and commercial vessels will be required to slow down over a longer distance through Haro Strait and Boundary Pass.

The DFO does however, outline an exception for commercial whale watching companies, who can approach transient killer whales up to 200 metres with authorization from the Minister of Transport.

Bain said transient whales are not quite as ill-affected by the noise pollution caused by vessels, since their prey – sea lions and other marine mammals – are much easier to spot and make detectable noise.

In Washington State, vessels can’t approach resident whales closer than 300 yards (about 274 metres) or follow from behind closer than 400 yards (about 366 metres).

The DFO is also moving forward on closures of recreational and commercial salmon fisheries in key foraging areas and is “committed to releasing an additional 1 million juvenile Chinook annually from a Chilliwack hatchery, in an effort to support Southern Resident Killer Whale recovery.”

READ ALSO: Calf born to endangered Pacific Northwest orcas



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