Southern Resident Killer Whales (SRKW) are vital to the local marine ecosystem and have cultural significance for Indigenous peoples and coastal communities in British Columbia (BC). The Government of Canada is committed to the protection and recovery of the endangered SRKW. The department is taking actions to help address all of the primary threats to the SRKW: prey availability and accessibility, acoustic and physical disturbance and contaminants.
The Government of Canada has made significant investments and advancements with respect to the protection and recovery of the SRKW. Beyond the $338 million allocated for stronger ecosystem conservation under the Oceans Protection Plan, Budget 2018 announced a $167.4 million investment under the Whales Initiative to support the protection and recovery of SRKW, North Atlantic right whales and St. Lawrence Estuary belugas. On October 31, 2018, in response to the determination that SRKW face imminent threats to their survival, the Government of Canada announced an additional $61.5 million for further, targeted actions to support SRKW population recovery.
Under these various initiatives, Transport Canada has been working with Indigenous groups, industry stakeholders, local communities, scientists, the whale watching community, environmental groups, and US partners to develop and implement concrete actions to reduce the threat of acoustic and physical disturbance caused by vessels of all sizes, including large commercial vessels, ferries, tugs, and smaller recreational and whale watching vessels. Many of these efforts align with the recommendations outlined in this petition. Specifically:
- Boat-free zones: For the last two years, to maximize protections in three key foraging areas of the SRKW, Transport Canada has implemented Interim Sanctuary Zones (ISZ) off Pender Island, Saturna Island and at Swiftsure Bank. No vessel traffic, including fishing, is permitted in these areas from June 1 to November 30, 2020, when SRKW are known to be present in the region, with specific exemptions for emergency purposes and Indigenous vessels. These zones are in addition to area-based fishery closures throughout critical habitat that further reduces physical disturbance from vessels, as well as reduces take of the primary food source for SRKW (chinook salmon). Discussions continue within the Sanctuaries Technical Working Group, a group composed of Indigenous representatives and stakeholders from a variety of sectors, to develop expert advice and recommendations, on the development of longer term sanctuary zones.
- Restrictions on viewing killer whales/increased approach distance: A number of measures have been introduced to address the viewing of SRKW and measures to take when in the presence of killer whales.
- In 2018, the Marine Mammal Regulations (MMR) were amended to add new protections for marine mammals. These amendments clearly defined what constitutes a disturbance to marine mammals, which is prohibited under the MMR, including separating a marine mammal from its group or going between it and a calf. In addition, an increased approach distance was adopted for all killer whales on BC coastal waters to 200m.
- In 2019, and again in 2020, based on the imminent threat facing the species, Transport Canada expanded on the requirements in the Marine Mammal Regulations by introducing an Interim Order that prohibits vessels from approaching any killer whale closer than 400m. In 2020 this measure is applicable in BC coastal waters between Campbell River to just north of Ucluelet and is in place year round. Whale watching and ecotourism companies that receive an authorization from the Minister of Transport are able to view all whales other than the SRKW from 200 m, given their expertise in differentiating between different types of killer whales. In order to receive this authorization, companies must sign an agreement with the Minister of Transport that commits them to not offering or promoting tours focused on SRKW, and to moving along quickly if they do come upon SRKW, while remaining 400m away.
- In addition, for the last two years, all vessels are asked to reduce their speed to less than 7 knots, and all fish harvesters are asked to stop fishing, if they are within 1,000 metres of killer whales. This is intended to reduce engine noise and vessel wake, and reduce overall disturbance to the whales. Finally, if a vessel finds itself within the approach distance of a killer whale, vessel operators are asked to turn their engine to neutral, and all vessel operators are asked to turn off their echosounders when not in use and safe to do so.
- Commercial whale-watching licensing regime: In line with steps being taken by the State of Washington, the Government of Canada is conducting preliminary analysis into the risks and benefits of commercial whale watching licensing as a potential tool to help address the threat of physical and acoustic disturbance to SRKW and other marine mammals.
- Measures targeting large commercial vessels: The Government has been working with the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority’s Enhancing Cetacean Habitat and Observation (ECHO) program since its inception in 2014 to address the issue of underwater noise from large commercial vessels transiting through the Salish Sea. In May 2019, the Government of Canada entered into a first-of-its-kind Species at Risk Act, Section 11 conservation agreement with Vancouver Fraser Port Authority, Pacific Pilotage Authority and five marine transportation industry partners to support the recovery of the SRKW. The agreement formalizes the role of the ECHO Program and the participation of the marine industry and government to continue working collaboratively over a five-year term, with a focus on measures to reduce acoustic and physical disturbance of large commercial ships operating in SRKW critical habitat. The signed conservation agreement outlines specific commitments and actions under the agreement is publicly available on the Species at Risk Act public registry.
For the fourth year in a row the Government is working with the ECHO Program and its many advisors and partners to implement voluntary measures to reduce underwater noise contributions from large commercial vessels in SRKW critical habitat. This year’s efforts include the implementation of a voluntary vessel slowdown through Haro Strait and Boundary Pass (https://www.portvancouver.com/environment/water-land-wildlife/echo-program/projects/voluntary-vessel-slowdown-trial/), a lateral displacement in the Strait of Juan de Fuca and a voluntary vessel slowdown trial in Swiftsure Bank.:
- This year, the slowdown in Haro Strait and Boundary Pass began on July 1st, when SRKW were spotted in Haro Strait. Trusted observers on Saturna Island and San Juan Island began monitoring for the whales on June 1. Over the last three years, participation in the voluntary slowdown in this area has increased from 60% in 2017 to 82% in 2019. The target in 2020 is for 85% or more participation. The results of the slowdown over the last 3 years have demonstrated impressive reductions in underwater noise through this important SRKW feeding corridor. Due to the fact the shipping lanes through Haro Strait and Boundary Pass are in both US and Canadian waters, implementing a mandatory slowdown in this area would be very challenging.
- New for 2020, in an effort to reduce underwater noise in another key SRKW feeding area, an additional voluntary vessel slowdown trial is also planned in Swiftsure Bank. This slowdown trial will run from August 1 to October 31, and its implementation involves close collaboration with transboundary partners to coordinate the participation of un-piloted vessels leaving both Canadian and US ports.
- The voluntary lateral displacement in the Strait of Juan de Fuca started June 1, with the goal of reducing underwater noise by moving inshore traffic further away from key SRKW foraging areas. This is the third year this measure has been put in place, with very positive results for reducing underwater noise in past years.
- Supporting the development of quiet vessel technologies/designs: In 2019, Transport Canada launched the Quiet Vessel Initiative (QVI), a 5-year, $26 million program that is testing and evaluating the most promising technologies, designs, retrofits and operational practices to reduce underwater vessel noise. The goal of QVI is to advance the use of safe, environmentally-responsible, and effective low-noise technologies and operational practices through research and testing. QVI is also funding the development of technologies to improve marine mammal detection in order to reduce the risks of vessel strikes. The Program launched a $21.1M call for research proposals on January 20, 2020, with contracts being awarded throughout Summer 2020. A subsequent call for proposals is planned for Fall 2020. Results from these projects will drive the adoption of these quiet vessel innovations - domestically and internationally. In addition, for the last several years, Transport Canada has partnered with BC Ferries on research initiatives to assess the effectiveness of different technology solutions to reducing underwater noise. For example, Transport Canada is providing funding to BC Ferries to research optimal propeller designs to reduce underwater noise generated by ferries.
- Advancing Quiet Vessel Solutions Internationally: An important element of the Government’s efforts to promote the adoption of quiet vessel technology is engagement through the International Maritime Organization (IMO). Due to the global nature of shipping, the majority of vessels calling on Canada’s western ports are internationally flagged. As such, international action is essential to achieving success in advancing quiet vessel solutions. Canada has been advancing discussions at the IMO and within the international community since 2017, including hosting three international workshops, and supporting a number of collaborative studies and initiatives. In 2020, Canada tabled a proposal, co-sponsored by the United States and Australia, which seeks to add the issue of underwater noise and quiet vessel design to the workplan of the IMO’s Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC). Due to the current pandemic, the meeting of the MEPC has been postponed.
- Increased resources for enforcement: The Whales Initiative and the additional funding for SRKW protection, included important investments to help Fisheries and Oceans Canada’s Conservation and Protection (C&P) program increase its capacity to support on-water enforcement. It has also been able to increase its air surveillance over areas frequented by SRKW, have a second dedicated field unit and an increased complement of fishery officers dedicated to SRKW. In addition, Transport Canada and Parks Canada also received funding to increase capacity for enforcement, surveillance and monitoring. These investments allow for more consistent aerial and on-water coverage of the designated critical habitat in Canadian waters and help support the effective implementation of the measures being implemented.
In addition to the above actions, the Government has also been advancing research efforts to better understand the impacts of underwater noise on marine mammals, and to test and deploy technologies to better detect killer whales. For example, Transport Canada is providing funding to Ocean Wise to support the continued development of the WhaleReport Alert System, a real-time notification system for mariners on the water, as well as funded the deployment of a cabled underwater listening station (ULS) in Boundary Pass to collect real-time vessel source levels from both the inbound and outbound shipping lanes, as well as ambient noise and marine mammal calls. Data collected from the ULS, as well as other hydrophones that are part of a network throughout the Salish Sea, will help the Government of Canada better understand the threats associated with commercial vessel related activities; the geographical overlap between ships and the SRKW; inform the development of mitigation and management measures to reduce potential impacts of shipping on marine mammals, based on the best scientific data available; and, assess the feasibility and effectiveness of quiet vessel technologies.
Effective protection and recovery of the SRKW requires a long-term, coordinated and collective effort, led by both the Government of Canada and our partners. Our 2020 measures build on ones announced last year, and reflect advice from a number of sources, including the Sanctuaries Technical Working Group, the General Vessel Measures Technical Working Group, the Indigenous and Multi-Stakeholder Advisory Group, the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority’s ECHO program and coastal communities. Transport Canada looks forward to ongoing collaboration with all of its partners to continue to adapt and refine its efforts to reduce the key threats to this important species.