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Orcas (Killer Whales) in BC need SCIENCE-BASED strategies for longevity

There is a long history of studying Orcas (Killer Whales) in BC. Scientists such as Michael Bigg have dedicated their lives to learning about Orca Whales and publishing their work. Recently there has been increased interest in the health of Orca Whales in the media as well as by environmental groups. The Department of Fisheries and Oceans, known as The DFO has declared they will do something soon to protect the whales. The problem with their proposition is that the DFO has hasn’t paid any scientists over the past few years to study the factors needed to keep the BC Orca whale population healthy.

What we have been told by the media

  1. Southern Resident Killer Whales (SRKW) have been declining for the past 20 years
  2. If we don’t act immediately they face imminent risk of extinction
  3. There are just 74
  4. They are critically endangered
  5. They are all starving
  6. We have to close all recreational and commercial salmon fishing due to supposed food scarcity among the whales

History of Southern Resident Killer Whales (SRKW) in BC:

THE Numbers – Since 1960 there has never been more than 98 Southern Resident Killer Whales

Southern Resident Killer Whales number 74 in total. Like all other species, their population naturally grows and declines. Some of the decline in the 1970’s was from Orca’s being taken captive for aquariums. Today scientists are not sure why some Orca populations are declining, while others are thriving. Northern Resident Killer Whales (NRKW), who share the northern range of their SRKW cousins, are increasing in abundance, while sharing the same diet.

Biggs Killer Whales, AKA Transient Orcas, are thriving as well- although Biggs killer whales also feed on marine mammals, which are an abundant food source.

Some scientists have noted that one of the reasons SRKW are not be fairing as well as the NRKW is 2 of the 3 pods winter in the United States where once abundant Sacramento Chinook are now in significant decline. These pods return to their northern range in Canada and Puget Sound and have been noted as returning with appearance of being nutritionally stressed.

Other factors impacting the SRKW are habitat loss, chemical contamination from sewage, micro-plastics and other toxins, marine noise from tour boats and larger vessels, and the relative abundance or scarcity of prey throughout their entire range.

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Southern Resident Killer Whales (SRKW) have shown few sings of recovery since they were listed as Endangered under the Canadian Species At Risk Act in 2003 and the US Endangered Species Act in 2005
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Possible Main Factors:

Pollution:

Pollution and its impact on the prey SRKW depend upon is emerging as a threat to their recovery.  Vancouver for example, has 3 sewage treatment plants alone.  Looking closer they discharge a whopping 1.117 billion litres/day into the Fraser River estuary!

Recent studies on the survival rates of out-migrant Chinook that enter sewage-contaminated estuaries have determined that there is a 50% higher mortality rate as compared to Chinook from uncontaminated estuaries.   Dr. James Meador’s research found juvenile Chinook with presence of 150 Chemicals of Emerging Concern (CEC’s).   Many of these chemicals are human anti-depressants, or endocrine disruptors associated with impacting hormone balance.

Interestingly, NRKW who consume the same diet of salmon as their SRKW cousins are not experiencing the same population vitality challenges.  Could this be related to the fact that SRKW’s range is entirely within close proximity to large urbanized areas and sewage pollutants?   Pollution could be playing a significant role in making SRKW sick, or have the appearance of being nutritionally stressed.  Same prey source, different ranges exposed to vastly different pollutants – perhaps there is a linkage to what is making SRKW sick?

In addition, the impacts of pollution on the viability of out-migrating salmon smolts could also be contributing to lower abundance of returning adult salmon that SKRW rely upon.

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What to do about pollution?

The Transient Orcas contain more toxins than the Resident Orcas since one of their main food source is seals that have high levels of toxins. So far there is no evidence of toxins being an indicator for birth defects for the Transient Orcas, so it is hard to emphatically say that toxins are the culprit. But that doesn't we should do nothing.

Fortunately, in 2016 Steven Harper ordered Victoria to build a plant by 2020 to clean up its sewage outfall (1). In 2014 Macaulay Point and Clover Point wastewater systems (for Victoria) were found to be 126 and 112 respectively, which is significantly above the 70 points risk allocation. So as long as the new plan doesn’t get derailed, this problem should be done with after decades of debates.

Vessel Noise:

There haven’t been studies showing vessel noise as a conclusive hindrance to whales, however having recreational and tour boats around whales from dusk to dawn may have an adverse effect to whales.  Physical and acoustic disturbance is thought by science experts to be one of the main threat pillars to SRKW.

We can manage those threats by working with vessel operators to slow down when in close proximity to whales, and to stay well away, allowing them to successfully use echolocation to forage for prey.  For recreational vessel operators, 400m is thought by many experts to be an appropriate distance to reduce physical and acoustic disturbances that could impede prey acquisition.

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Food:

Both Northern Resident Killer whales and Southern Resident Killer Whales feed on fish and their favourite fish is Chinook salmon (2). They will also feed on Coho, Chum, Pink or Sockeye salmon and can spend weeks at a time doing so even when there are Chinook in areas close by.

Transient Orcas feed on mammals. If you see whales moving quickly along the shore when salmon are around you know they are most likely Transient Orcas on the hunt for seals/sea lions. It is important to know that studies have to distinguish which whales are seen where. For example around Tofino, Ucluelet and Bamfield sightings are almost entirely Transient Orcas.

The Chinook population fluctuates from year to year. The last few years haven’t been great Chinook years, although they haven’t been the worst either. There were some poor Chinook years in Georgia Strait from 2005 to 2012. All of a sudden in 2013 the Chinook started coming through again with no apparent environmental change.

It would be difficult to argue that food shortage is currently a problem around Vancouver Island when the amount of food has actually increased in recent years.  Additionally, Northern Residents who share some of the same range as Southern Residents have been increasing in abundance.  If food within the BC portion of SRKW range was the critical factor in their declining numbers, then we should see similar population trends with the NRKW – but we're not.

The two pods in concern are K and L pods which go down into Puget Sound and the San Juan Islands for part of the year and around southern Vancouver Island for the other part. There is some evidence they are not eating as much as they should.  J pod, which spends most of its time in and around southern Vancouver Island, is doing well.

Possible Main Factors:

This is not a made in BC Problem. You can see from the comparative population trends  “J” Pod which remains in BC throughout the year has been healthy ands steady. Of the two other pods (K & L ) that spend the winter (October to April) to the south off the coastline of California north to Washington State, "L" Pod is the one in trouble.

Southern Resident Orca Population
J, K, and L Pod Census as of July 1 Each Year

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Trends we can alter:

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DUE TO A BAN ON THE TRADITIONAL HUNTING OF SEALS AND SEA LIONS IN OUR WATERS, POPULATIONS HAVE GROWN TEN-FOLD SINCE THE 1970's.

Today it is estimated that there are 70,000 seals and sealions in Georgia Strait, with groups that live and feed around rivers and estuaries consuming as much as 47% of juvenile salmon as they enter the ocean. Ultimately they are competing for the same food as our killer whales.

ALMOST HALF OF ALL CHINOOK AND COHO SALMON SMOLTS LEAVING RIVERS IN GEORGIA STRAIT ARE EATEN BY SEALS.

Marine biologists have identified seals and sea lions as the #1 predators of Chinook and Coho Salmon in BC waters, consuming more Chinook than killer whales and commercial and recreational fisheries combined

DUE TO THEIR PROTECTED STATUS, THE SEAL POPULATION HAS EXPLODED 10 FOLD SINCE THE 1970’s.

Without traditional hunting of seals and sea lions along BC’s coast, their numbers in the Georgia Strait/Salish Sea have swollen from an estimated 7,000 in 1975 to over 70,000 today. Worse, this population pressure has pushed problem seals into sensitive rivers and estuaries, where it is estimated they consume nearly HALF of the salmon smolts that are trying to reach the sea to grow or return to the river to reproduce. Without a reduction in the number of these predators, our killer whales could soon run out of their primary food source. But the problem of smolt predation is only with a small working group of harbour seals and sealions and solving the problem may not be as difficult as some think.

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What can be done?

There is much scientific debate regarding how to address the problem. Some studies have identified that seals are a significant predator of Chinook, Coho and Steelhead smolts. These smolts out-migrate as larger sized juvenile salmon compared to their counterparts, and represent a good food source for seals. Other studies have shown that only a small number of harbour seals actually have learned how to target smolts as prey. Any action to address predation, has to be completely scientifically directed to ensure only problem animals are controlled.

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PREDATORS TODAY CONSUME SIX TIMES MORE CHINOOK THAN BEFORE.

In 1975, predators including seals and sea lions consumed 5 million Chinook. Today, they eat more than 31 million Chinook every year.

HUMANS CONSUME LESS NOW THAN IN 1975

In the same timeframe, human harvesting of Chinook has decreased, from 3.6 million to 2.1 million.

A joint session of Parliament in the House of Commons in Ottawa November 3, 2014. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Challenges in managing Habitat

Environmental and Fishery decision makers  sit in offices far away from the day to day life of Orcas (KillerWhales) and mat never have seen one in person. Also, there are “environmental” organizations that don’t focus on science and facts, but on their sponsored agenda.

In order to properly manage the environment, we need to recognize that humans have contributed to rises and declines in fish and whales. Now humans have to be responsible in keeping a balance in nature. Completely removing humans from the equation would only briefly appease a small portion of the public.

Orcas (Killer whales) are magnificent animals that inspire awe. In order to help them thrive we must rely on science... not political pressure coming from Ottawa. Marine scientists have identified a number of environmental factors affecting their health, vitality, and population size. Among these are habitat loss, chemical contamination from sewage, microplastics and other toxins, marine noise from tour boats and larger vessels, and the relative abundance or scarcity of prey.

BC’S COASTAL COMMUNITIES ARE BEING SCAPEGOATED.

Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Government is using BC's recreational sport fishing as a possible trade off to lobby groups  to get the pipeline approved. In a cynical effort to push a political agenda targeting a broad range of local industries and communities, a well-funded media campaign is being waged against British Columbians who enjoy sport fishing and who depend on it for their livelihoods. Most people don't realize how much sport fisherman volunteer each year to salmon enhancement. Sport fisherman are responsible for thousands of returning salmon each year.

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SPORT FISHING IS A VITAL PART OF SALMON SUSTAINABILITY.

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BC’s sport fishing community has played a vital role in conserving and protecting our environment over the past 30 years. Sport fisherman spend thousands of volunteer hours every year working in creeks and rivers to ensure survival of salmon. Some creeks and rivers are supported entirely by volunteers and donations.

Nile Creek Society is one example. Ken Kirkby had to fight a water board and spend many hours petitioning fisheries for permission to restore a creek that was left for dead. He was fly fisherman and a painter that had a vision. More than 300,000 dollars were raised through his paintings and other donations over 10 years. Thousands of volunteer hours spent to restore a creek . Now over 100,000 salmon and trout return to a creek that was left for dead. They have also had a hand in trying to bring back the ocean kelp harvested many years ago. The Nile Creek Society now manages 6 creeks and is an example of how determined people can fight bureaucracy to benefit the environment. Nile creek is one of many examples.

Shutting down sport fishing would mean loosing much of the salmon whales feed on. Do we want to leave it to DFO to manage the fishery they have done such a poor job managing? The truth is we need the sport fisherman for the salmon population to survive. Many hatcheries run are run entirely by donations.

STOPPING SPORT FISHING WOULD BE AN ECONOMIC AND POLITICAL DISASTER.

While cutting down on the food supply for whales by taking out sport fisherman's contribution to salmon enhancement, a closure of fishing areas or Chinook fisheries in BC would wreak havoc on lives and communities along our coast and would devastate BC’s coastal economy. Hundreds of resorts, hotels, motels, restaurants, shops, marinas and other local businesses rely heavily upon sport fishing.

Travel and tourism would suffer, and BC’s reputation as a paradise for outdoor enthusiasts from around the world would be given a black eye. More than 8,400 jobs in BC rely on sport fishing, providing goods and services to more than 400,000 anglers from every community, and from every walk of life.

Many small coastal communities derive almost all their economic activity from the recreational fishery. In communities such as Port Renfrew, that represents upward of $18 million/year – over $40,000/resident. Closing recreational fishing will have a devastating impact on the lives of families, and the businesses that depend upon them.

Quick Facts – 2017 Economic Study for Pacific Salmon Commission on the value of the Salmon Fishery (excludes other important fisheries such as Halibut, and cod)

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$1 Billion in economic activity
$580 million CDN in GDP
6,150 Full Time Equivalent Jobs
$325 million in Labour Income

Indigenous and Local Knowledge Not Consulted in CSAS Science Advice:

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Recreational and Commercial fishers rely on salmon actively feeding and congregating around bait fish to successfully catch salmon, whereas SRKW feeding success depends upon ambushing salmon actively migrating. SRKW in general, use different areas of habitat than recreational fishers because they rely upon different acquisition strategies to catch their fish.

This explains the marked departure from the study hypothesis (see McClusky 2006) – whales largely rely on different habitat than recreational and commercial fishers. Moreover, when we interviewed recreational and commercial fishers, some with 20 to 50 years on the water experience, their uniform reported observation was that killer whales are very rarely observed in wide areas of La Perouse and Swiftsure Banks – contrary to the science advice offered to the Minister via CSAS Report 2017/035, which was erroneously derived by inferring SRKW would use areas noted to be successful fishing locations for recreational and commercial fishers.

 

Knowing which areas within this huge (5,025 sq km) area are important to killer whales cannot be obtained from the present sighting data.  Additional information is required from systematic surveys and PAM monitoring, with input from local and indigenous knowledge to provide information on where and when killer whales are travelling and feeding. For more on the science click here

WE NEED A HOLISTIC APPROACH TO HELPING OUR WHALES

Our Recommendations

The 400m bubble zone for all vessel operators under 60 GT
Closely monitored – Special Management Zone areas can be open/closed at times when SRKW are foraging (all vessels under 60 GT)
Independent Science Panel Comprised of 3 independent experts to provide Minister with independent science review and advice on all CH extension proposals at various stages of the SARA process
Multi-Sectoral CH Advisory & Monitoring Committee

References