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Photo courtesy of YouTube/NOAA Fisheries

Canada enacts new rules to protect Southern Resident orcas

VANCOUVER — Canada has announced sweeping new rules to protect Southern Resident orcas off British Columbia’s coast, including requiring ships to stay 438 yards away from the whales and closing some salmon fisheries.

Fisheries and Oceans Minister Jonathan Wilkinson announced on Friday the latest set of recovery measures for the endangered Southern Residents, of which only 75 remain and they face serious threats.

“We are at a crossroads. The impacts of climate change, combined with habitat loss associated with human activity over the past several decades, has resulted in ecosystem degradation here in Canada and around the world,” he told a news conference.

“Our government is taking action to protect and enhance biodiversity. This is critical for the health of the planet and ultimately for the health of the human population.”

Starting in June, the minimum distance ships must keep from all orcas will double to 438 yards, although commercial whale-watchers may be authorized to view whales other than Southern Residents from 219 yards away.

Several commercial whale watching companies, including members of the Pacific Whale Watch Association, have agreed to refrain from offering tours to see Southern Resident orcas.

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans also announced Friday that no vessel traffic will be allowed at all in “interim sanctuary zones,” at Swiftsure Bank, off southwestern Vancouver Island, and near Pender and Saturna islands, two Gulf Islands.

The department is immediately asking ships to voluntarily turn off echo sounders when not in use, allow engines to idle when within 1,312 feet of orcas and, in some locations, go slow when they’re within 0.62 miles of southern residents.

It’s also closing recreational and commercial salmon fishing in parts of the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the Gulf Islands, which will take effect after previously announced restrictions on chinook fishing wrap up in mid-July or August, and extend through Oct. 31.

Owen Bird, executive director of the Sport Fishing Institute of B.C., noted the closures are actually less restrictive than last year, when fishing of all recreational finfish was banned, including halibut, rockfish and lingcod.

But Bird said he’s still frustrated by the tough chinook restrictions announced last month, which prohibits or restricts fishing of the species in several parts of southern B.C. Chinook are the primary prey of Southern Resident orcas.

DFO also announced Friday that it will ask recreational and, where possible, commercial harvesters to temporarily suspend fishing activity when within 0.62 miles of an orca in part of the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the Gulf Islands, as well as in the mouth of the Fraser River.

The department also said it’s implementing initiatives to support habitat protection and restoration of chinook salmon.

It says one major initiative is an increase of one million juvenile chinook at a Chilliwack, B.C., hatchery, resulting in 35,000 additional adults — a 35 per cent increase in total abundance of fall chinook in the Fraser River.

Transport Canada also is launching a trial program of an expanded voluntary slowdown for commercial vessels through Harrow Strait and Boundary Pass, ranging from June to at least the end of September, but possibly until the end of October.

Dedicated fishery officers will be on the water verifying compliance with the new measures, while Transport Canada conducts aerial surveillance and Parks Canada and Canadian Coast Guard will assist with enforcement, the government said.

See Peninsula Daily News article . . .