An announcement made by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada on Wednesday suggests the government is moving towards declaring Swiftsure and La Perouse Banks critical habitats for resident killer whales, which will likely lead to fishery closures around Tofino and Ucluelet to protect prey species.
“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,” the announcement reads. “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.”
DFO spokesperson Dan Bate told the Westerly News in an email on Thursday that no closures have been finalized.
“There have been no decisions taken on fishing closures, and on which activities may be restricted in the La Perouse and Swiftsure areas,” Bate wrote. “Those areas are part of the proposed amended critical habitat area that is currently being consulted on. DFO will embark on a planning process to determine what restrictions may be required for those areas in advance of the 2019 season.”
Earlier this year, the DFO announced a sport fishing closure until Oct. 1 in the Strait of Juan de Fuca from Otter Point to East Point, near Port Renfrew, and portions around the Gulf Islands. The federal government is cutting back coast-wide on allowed catches of prized chinook salmon in an attempt to save the small population of endangered southern resident killer whales.
Tofino mayor Josie Osborne said Wednesday’s announcement indicates additional measures, including closures, are looming.
“They’ve indicated some sense of urgency that they need to know what those measures will be before May 2019, which is when the whales return essentially and there will be some pretty fast and furious decision making over the next five months or so,” she said. “They haven’t announced fishery closures per se, but I think that there’s a strong likelihood that they’ll be some measure of fisheries closures.”
She added any fishery closure would have economic impacts on the West Coast, but future generations must be considered as well.
“Ultimately, if we try to do our best at thinking generations out into the future and we’re committed to understanding why we got to be in this place and that we all have to make some sacrifices, I think there’s a way forward,” she said. “We should always be concerned when decisions are being made about resources or livelihoods that we depend on and I will say this is a really tricky and very complicated and complex issue…If we are going to uphold the values that we have as Canadians and as West Coasters about the ocean, then we have some really difficult conversations coming before us.”
Lara Kemps of the Ucluelet chamber of commerce told the Westerly News on Thursday that she was frustrated by the announcement as DFO had given West Coast communities until Nov. 3 to submit input into the strategy around critical habitats.
“I was very disappointed to see this announcement yesterday because we’re working very hard as a community and, when we sat down with the minister, we had until Nov. 3. So we would appreciate that time to give our input and our solutions and work together,” she said. “We are still advocating hard for our West Coast communities…We hope that [DFO] are listening. We all want to work together. We should be collaborating together.”
She encourages anyone wanting to provide input or alternative solutions to the proposed plan to send their suggestions to DFO at SARA/LEP.XNCR@dfo-mpo.gc.ca before Nov. 3.
“We need to collaborate. We need to get our solutions in. This will really affect our community and everyone needs to realize that,” she said. “It will affect many of our businesses, not just our sportsfishing business but all the way down. It’s a domino effect. It’s over $7 million a year that it brings to our community alone.”
She added that the chamber is working on launching a GoFundMe page to boost its outreach efforts.
“It’s to engage communities, to develop partnerships and protection strategies, to realize critical social and economic values,” she said. “We’re going to raise capital to help deliver media outreach, social media campaigns via chamber meetings and other venues.”
Osborne said she was not surprised to see DFO make an announcement prior to the Nov. 3 input-deadline.
“I think that’s just more transparent to be forward and upfront with what you’re thinking and where you’re going,” she said. “There’s no beating around the bush and if they had waited until after Nov. 3, then people might have felt that they were trying to hide something and I hope that that’s not the case.”
DFO also announced $61.5 million of funding to protect killer whales and Bate said DFO is working on identifying how to best spend that money to “strategically increase Chinook hatchery production,” beginning in 2019.
“Yesterday’s announcement of $61.5 M includes investments to strategically rebuild and protect Chinook stocks,” he wrote.
Central Westcoast Forest Society’s executive director Jessica Hutchinson hopes to see some of that funding directed towards local salmon habitat restoration efforts.
“In addition to any protection measures for killer whales, we would also like to see some funding towards increasing wild chinook stocks through habitat restoration efforts,” she said. “If we are trying to address chinook conservation and declining chinook numbers, we need to take a multi-faceted approach that looks at all the reasons for the decline of this species and the subsequent decline of southern resident killer whale populations.”
Wild chinook populations are in drastic decline throughout the West Coast, according to Hutchinson who said 53 chinook were counted at the Tranquil Watershed during 2018’s spawning season. She said Tranquil once boasted roughly 5,000 chinook.
“As recent as 2000, we had 1,105 chinook but, as of this year, we have 53 chinook,” she said. “The numbers are so low that we have concerns about the genetic diversity of the stocks and their resiliency for the long term.”
She said habitat restoration is needed to bring the species back to historic numbers.
“The Tranquil Watershed was hit very hard by logging starting around the 1960’s. In a short 15 year period they logged 90 per cent of the salmon-bearing corridor in the watershed and we know from scientific research that logging has terrible and long-term effects on salmonid populations,” she said. “What we are seeing is, despite it being half a century later, the habitat degradation endures and it’s time for us to start investing in restoring this habitat and rebuilding our wild salmon stocks and rebuilding the habitat so that it actually has the capacity to support more salmon.”
She added the the provincial government should step up with funding as well.
“Currently, the provincial government is not investing in habitat restoration. They were the government body that allowed the extensive forest harvesting and logging to occur in these watersheds. They facilitated this damage and it’s time for them to come to the table to help to restore these watersheds,” she said. “They currently don’t have any funding or grants available to organizations like [CWFS] that are trying to rebuild habitat for wild salmon stocks. It’s time for them to recognize the importance of salmon to this province and invest in this species and recovery efforts.”