Feds update islanders on whales

Protection measures outlined by officials

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Policy managers and enforcement officers from several federal ministries were at Lions Hall last Wednesday evening to discuss interim measures hoped to stave off the demise of the southern resident killer whale population.

Officials from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Transport Canada and Parks Canada talked about the new rules and enforcement resources. The evening program was officiated by Nicole Gallant, DFO’s enforcement operations chief for the Pacific region.

Community meetings were also held on Pender and Saturna islands last week. The Saturna community was prepared in advance and collectively had a long list of questions they wanted answered. Pender’s meeting attracted some 50 to 60 people.

Michelle Sanders, director of Transport Canada’s Clean Water Policy, told the small group of participants on Salt Spring that action was accelerated since the fisheries and environment ministers determined an imminent threat to the SRKW’s survival in April 2018. The 2019 measures were established through an interim order under the Canada Shipping Act and will be evaluated with an eye toward more permanent action.

“We’ll be using this summer to assess how effective this has been . . . [whether] we need another summer to see if this is an effective approach, and then looking at what the regulatory tools are,” Sanders said.

Measures introduced for the Salish Sea in 2019 include some chinook fishery closures, new regulations on vessel distance and the establishment of three interim sanctuary zones where all vessel traffic was prohibited between June 1 and Oct. 31 this year. Sanders acknowledged feedback from the Pender meeting that communication about the rules had not been circulated effectively to visiting boaters, or to locals.

The mandatory distance from all killer whales was established at 400 metres, except for boats that have authorization to get as close as 200 metres to transient killer whales. Exempted boats fly a special purple flag and represent 40 whale watching companies and two nonprofit organizations, Straitwatch and Soundwatch.

Enforcement of vessel distance and boating prohibitions within interim sanctuary zones was addressed by several members of the various teams. A dedicated DFO enforcement unit of three people has been funded and given its own vessel. They will be getting an additional member in September. Parks Canada also received a vessel and funding, and will have five enforcement officers as of September who can patrol the waters within the Gulf Islands National Park Reserve. RCMP who patrol the international marine border provide additional support.

Speaking for the DFO unit, officer Jeff Quigley said his unit has been focused on informing boaters of the regulations. So far those violating the sanctuary zones have been unaware of the rules and compliant when informed. The team is now moving to the issuance of violation notices, Quigley said.

Enforcement officers urged the public to help them by making detailed reports about boaters harassing whales as soon as possible, and to back up with video evidence if at all possible.

Irwin also asked why seal culls aren’t happening, and why more attention isn’t being placed on hatcheries. He said reducing recreational fishing and the new catch and release program had removed good ocean stewards from the water, along with their contributions to the Pacific Salmon Foundation.

Lee Harber of DFO’s marine mammal unit explained that a technical working group dedicated to the issue had discussed multiple options and had tried to balance fishery restrictions as well as they could.

“We’re trying to give every opportunity we can for SRKW to forage in the areas that we think are important to them,” Harber said.

He added more scientific data is being gathered about the chinook salmon stocks, which are likewise in decline, that could help DFO target fishery closures rather than having large static closures.

Questions about using technology to track whale movements and adapt with spot fishery closures led to an interesting discussion of the hydrophone network that DFO is continuing to build, and how that can be linked into other sighting networks and technologies such as underwater gliders. The network currently employs hydrophones equipped with cables. Radio transmitters send info to DFO when whale calls are detected.

Paul Cottrell, who was raised on Salt Spring and is DFO’s marine mammal rescue expert, said the main goal of real time tracking is to protect killer whales in the event of an oil spill, but he noted vessel strike is another real risk for local whales. Once the hydrophone network is more robust and reliable, information would ideally be transmitted to BC Ferries and the Coast Guard’s Marine Communications and Traffic Services, Cottrell said.

Tracking could potentially be used to inform spot fishery closures as well, DFO biologist Elly Chmelnitsky said. She said for now, though, notifications to boaters to leave a sanctuary zone might come too late to help the whales.

For more on this story, see the August 21, 2019 issue of the Gulf Islands Driftwood newspaper, or subscribe online.

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