Islands Trust Council could soon be giving more attention to part of its strategic plan dealing with an important issue in its waters, the recovery and survival of the southern resident killer whale population.
During an update on the Gulf Islands National Park Reserve Advisory Committee on March 12, Saturna trustee Lee Middleton reported action items under the federal Oceans Protection Plan for 2020 are now in the consultation phase and are set to be enacted in June. He requested time on the next Trust Council agenda to discuss the plan more fully, noting it has complex layers. In the meantime he recommended that individual local Trust committees do what they could to support the federal government’s efforts on killer whale recovery, some of which have faced extreme opposition from the whale-watching industry.
“Pretty much everybody is admitting they’re part of the problem and seeking to do something about it. The people who aren’t are the whale-watching boats,” Middleton said. “To me, we’re not saying no whale watching. We’re saying you have to be real and admit that shadowing the J or K pod for every available daylight hour is a problematic activity.”
“On Saturna Island in the summer every day you see anything from 12 to 30 vessels all day shadowing whales,” he added. “The industry talks about themselves as being actually the sentinels, the guardians, and it’s B.S. I see it akin to the resource industry where it’s a cash grab: ‘The whales are not dead yet, we can sell tickets. Let’s do that as long as we’ve got a living population and then when they die we sell the boats.’”
The Saturna LTC has passed a resolution that supports harmonizing the regulation of B.C.’s whale-watching industry with that of Washington state, where stricter measures will be implemented in 2021. The LTC also passed a resolution supporting interim sanctuary zones located off Saturna and Pender islands, and enacted a “voluntary bylaw” on commercial shipping vessel slow-downs.
Middleton encouraged other communities to take the same steps, if only to signal the importance of the issue.
“I would really appreciate it if other local Trust committees would consider passing resolutions on regulating the whale-watching industry,” added Middleton’s fellow Saturna trustee Paul Brent. “Their behaviour is obnoxious, and I think if we can advocate for whale-watching permitting and regulation, it won’t stop it from happening, it would just give it some teeth, and it would be really really appreciated by the southern resident killer whales.”
Middleton said there are additional areas of interface between the Islands Trust’s strategic plan and budget and the federal government’s work, pointing to an eelgrass mapping project the Trust is partnering on as a prime example. While the Trust is ready to commit its $50,000 to the work, nonprofit group Sea Change failed to receive its federal funding in this cycle.
“To me it seems that that would be the simplest of asks of DFO and Transport Canada to have that work completed because obviously it’s critical forage habitat for one of the four primary threats to the southern resident killer whales, and that’s prey availability,” Middleton said. “And so I think it’s time for us to become more coordinated with this initiative of the provincial and federal governments.”