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Feds give B.C. groups $12.2 million to study endangered killer whales

Research focuses on threats, but conservationist argues immediate action is needed
Ocean Wise, a marine conservation organization out of the Vancouver Aquarium, will receive $942,000
Ocean Wise, a marine conservation organization out of the Vancouver Aquarium, will receive $942,000 to study how noise and food limitations impact the southern and northern resident killer whales. Photo Vancouver Aquarium/NOAA

The Ministry of Fisheries, Oceans and Canadian Coast Guard announced $12.2 million in funding on March 15 towards the study and preservation of killer whales on the West Coast. However, one conservation group argues such research is redundant and immediate action is needed.  

According to the press release, $9.1 million will go toward developing detection technology to let mariners know in real-time about the presence of whales, thus reducing collisions. The residual $3.1 million is slated for research on the impacts on whales of underwater noise and a reduction in food.

The ministrywill split the funds four ways.

The University of British Columbia will get $1.1 million for research on the condition and abundance of Chinook salmon — the killer whales’ primary food source.

Ocean Wise, a marine conservation organization out of the Vancouver Aquarium, will receive $942,000 to study how noise and food limitations impact the southern and northern resident killer whales.

The University of Victoria will use its $935,000 to study threats to southern resident killer whales and their prey.

Finally, the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority will get $200,000 to observe noise levels from marine traffic in the Strait of Georgia.

The funding announced at the Vancouver Aquarium by Dominic LeBlanc, Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and Canadian Coast Guard is part of the $1.5-billion Oceans Protection Plan in the 2018 federal budget.

Deana Lancaster, spokesperson for Ocean Wise, said aerial monitoring of the health of southern resident killer whales will help understand how salmon runs affect the marine mammals. Scientists will use drone technology to compare the size of the 76 whales against annual runs of Chinook salmon, which make up 75-80 per cent of the whales’ diet.

However, Misty MacDuffee, a conservation biologist with Raincoast Conservation Foundation, said the threats to killer whales are already understood and it’s politics that prevents real action to preserve the animals in the Salish Sea, their foremost feeding ground. Her organization wants to see a cap on shipping traffic in the area and a curtailment of Chinook fishing, as well as a reduction in noise levels from marine traffic between three to six decibels a decade.

“What’s preventing the recovery of these animals is not ecology and science,” said MacDuffee, adding that the fishing and whale watching industries have a lot of political clout in B.C.

“We are looking for a commitment to no increases in shipping in the Salish Sea because we know that with those shipping increases comes more disturbance and it increases likelihood of extinction. We need to create these refuges where whales can feed without disturbance.”

@sashalakic