Habitat protection widened for endangered killer whales off Vancouver Island

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VANCOUVER – Two new areas off Vancouver Island have been designated by the federal government as protected for critical habitat for resident killer whales.

Fisheries and Oceans Minister Jonathan Wilkinson says the decision means key foraging locations for the endangered whales are protected from destruction.

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The government is increasing the amount of protected habitat from about 6,400 square kilometres to roughly 10,700 square kilometres.

The new protected area is intended to help recovery efforts for northern and southern resident killer whales, and covers an area off southwestern Vancouver Island.

The number of southern resident killer whales is down to 74 as the orcas face several threats, including a lack of prey, particularly chinook salmon, noise and physical strikes from ships, and contaminants in the water.

The state of Washington recently announced US$1.1 billion in spending and a partial whale-watching ban in an attempt to help the population’s recovery.

The money would go toward protecting and restoring habitat for salmon, boosting production from salmon hatcheries, storm-water cleanup and quieting vessel traffic.

In Canada, the government says the announcement on Wednesday is in addition to $167 million in spending announced this year to help the whales.

Measures it has introduced include requiring vessels to slow down, tougher regulatory controls on contaminants and spending aimed at protecting and boosting the stock of chinook. Whale-watching vessels and other boats have also been ordered to stay 200 metres away from the animals.

“We know that Canadians care deeply about these whales,” Wilkinson said in a statement. “These new critical habitat areas will ensure that the ocean space that the whales frequent and forage for prey is protected for generations to come.”

The distinctive black-and-white orcas were listed as an endangered species in the U.S. and Canada well over a decade ago. Their numbers are now at the lowest levels in more than three decades.

One of the whales was seen this summer keeping the body of her dead calf afloat in waters off B.C. and Washington state for more than two weeks, triggering international media coverage of their plight.

The federal government’s approach to protecting whale habitat has not been without opposition as sport fishing, tourism and business leaders from across Vancouver Island warned earlier this month that jobs are at stake because fishing closures have been extended. Seventeen Chambers of Commerce on the Island have asked Fisheries and Oceans to consider the impact of its management measures on the economies of coastal communities.