Salish Sea orcas are starving. An emergency order can save them

Endangered orcas in the Salish Sea off the Pacific Coast are starving. Declines in chinook salmon, the main source of food for these southern resident killer whales, along with disturbances and contaminants in their habitat, have scientists fearing for their survival. As their numbers dwindle (only 76 remain), the federal government has refrained from using a tool that could help them: a rarely used emergency order under the Species at Risk Act.

A male SRKW surfacing ©Rachael Merrett/Georgia Strait Alliance

WWF-Canada has joined forces with other environmental organizations from Canada and the U.S. urging the federal government to issue an emergency order to ensure whales aren’t competing with people for their only source of food, and to reduce disturbance and underwater noise from boats and ships in their habitat.
A powerful legislative tool used only twice before, an emergency order, initiated by Minister of Fisheries and Oceans Dominic LeBlanc, could and should close orca feeding areas to salmon fishing, and reduce this year’s chinook harvest to maximize the amount of chinook available to orcas. Scientists also identified the need to immediately designate additional areas of critical habitat for the SRKW under SARA around the Swiftsure Bank on the west coast of Vancouver Island to give these orcas additional protections from human disturbance.
Three SRKW surface near a boat © Rachael Merrett/Georgia Strait Alliance

These orcas need a quiet underwater environment so they can communicate and find food. To reduce disturbance, the emergency order should prohibit whale watching and other recreational boats from pursuing these orcas in their feeding areas, and create slow-downs for large commercial ships at times of the year these orcas are in the Haro Strait. It should also implement a freeze on any increase in underwater noise in the Salish Sea from this point forward, and require that a plan be developed with targets to decrease noise over the next 18 months.
Southern resident killer whales won’t survive without quick action. It’s time for government to use every tool at its disposal to save them.