Representatives from the federal departments of Fisheries and Oceans, Transport Canada and Parks Canada will be in the Gulf Islands this week to speak to residents about new regulations to protect the southern resident killer whales and ongoing resident concerns.
A meeting is taking place on Salt Spring today (Aug. 14) at Lions Hall at 4:30 p.m., to be followed by a meeting on Saturna Island the next night. A Pender meeting was held Tuesday.
With three more members of the southern resident killer whale population presumed dead, a troubling downward population trend has many people fearing that iconic species may soon disappear from local waters.
The San Juan Islands-based Center for Whale Research announced last week that whales J17, K25 and L84 have been missing long enough that they can’t be expected back. J17 was a 42-two-year-old J-pod matriarch and mother of Tahlequah (J35), who carried her dead calf for 17 days last year. K25 and L84 were both adult males, ages 28 and 29 respectively. Although two new calves were born in 2019, the super-pod population is now down to 73 individuals.
The SRKW historically frequented the Salish Sea almost daily in summer months but have lately been shifting territory, apparently in search of better hunting grounds.
“Due to the scarcity of suitable chinook salmon prey, this population of whales now rarely visit the core waters of its designated critical habitat: Puget Sound, Georgia Strait and the inland reach of the Strait of Juan de Fuca,” the Center for Whale Research said, noting L pod has not been seen yet in the Salish Sea this summer.
Gulf Islands residents who are used to seeing whales transit through local waters have also documented the change. New interim sanctuary zones located along parts of Pender and Saturna islands that prohibit most vessel traffic between June 1 and Oct. 31 this year are not addressing the heart of the problem, according to some watching the situation closely.
“The residents haven’t been around for two years now because there’s no food. It’s not rocket science. It’s basic biology,” said Susie Washington-Smyth, a Saturna resident who has experience in environmental research and law.
Washington-Smyth helped circulate a discussion document to islanders ahead of the meeting, which is being sponsored and moderated by the Saturna Local Trust Committee. Saturna Islanders have said they strongly support protections for the SRKW but are disappointed by the lack of consultation in the Gulf Islands. Consultation sessions were held only in Victoria, Richmond and Sooke.
Islanders also feel the new sanctuaries have created a burden on island residents, businesses and tourists, and were created through political motivation rather than scientific merit. As Washington-Smyth observed, the sanctuary zones mean locals are prohibited from using their waterfront properties even for non-motorized boating. But the greater source of chinook salmon shortage is not being addressed, with key fisheries such as the Fraser salmon run and the herring fishery remaining open.
Islanders are also questioning the efficacy of limits on whale watching, boating traffic and fishing without adequate enforcement, and how much of the consultation on the action plan under the Species at Risk Act was actually incorporated into the recent regulations.
“The issue is there is no food,” Washington-Smyth said. “They’re going to try to couch this as a NIMBY thing. We’re all ready to do our share — if not taking my grandkids in a kayak in front of my house will help, I would be willing to do it.”
“I think we’re witnessing the extinction of the species, and it’s not whale watching noise, it’s lack of food. So let’s focus on getting them more food,” she added.