Critics of the federal government’s approach to saving killer whales say the policies will not succeed. (Black Press Media)

Critics of the federal government’s approach to saving killer whales say the policies will not succeed. (Black Press Media)

Salmon fishing closures won’t save the whales, say critics

Federal government accused of going after salmon fishery as 'low hanging fruit'

  • Feb. 21, 2020 12:00 a.m.

Connie and Peter Hovey, the owners of the Trailhead Resort in Port Renfrew, are criticizing the Department of Fisheries and Oceans’ approach to saving the southern resident killer whales.

In an open letter, the pair say the DFO’s plan is inefficient and not based on science.

In their letter, the couple said the DFO’s intention to limit salmon fishing in the region will impact tourism and the $1.1-billion recreational fishing industry and will threaten up to 9,000 jobs that rely on the industry.

These actions ignore that salmon fishing is not the main threat to the southern resident killer whale populations, the Hoveys write.

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“We (recreational fishers) are taking one per cent of the chinook salmon stock. That’s not the problem. The real problem is these whales are swimming in waters full of human waste,” said Peter Hovey.

“It’s all the drugs going down the drain, the human waste, toxic runoff from agricultural operations, and everything else we’re putting into the water. Between that and the inbreeding that we caused, it’s no wonder their numbers are in decline.”

Hovey noted that even though the southern resident killer whales only spend their summer months in our waters and the rest of the time along the coast of Washington to California, they are now spending less time in the Strait of Juan de Fuca and his belief is that this is due to contaminants in local waters.

Based upon the peer reviewed research of Misty MacDuffee and Paul C. Paquet, scientists working with the Raincoat Foundation, it actually is unlikely that increasing the salmon stocks alone will save the southern resident killer whales.

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In their paper Evaluating anthropogenic threats to endangered killer whales to inform effective recovery plans, the researchers write the following:

“Prey limitation is the most important factor affecting population growth. However, to meet recovery targets through prey management alone, chinook abundance would have to be sustained near the highest levels since the 1970s.”

And while their paper outlines the importance of increasing the stocks of prey species (chinook salmon), it seems to agree, at least in part, with Hovey’s contention that a more wide ranging approach to saving the southern resident killer whale population is required.

“The current small size of the SRKW population was not caused by lack of salmon. The whales’ depleted status is due in large part to the legacy of an unsustainable live-capture fishery for display in aquariums,” said the paper.

During the 1960s and 1970s, before the practice was outlawed, 47 southern resident killer whales were hunted, captured and sold to aquariums. It’s estimated that nearly 20 others died during unsuccessful attempts to capture the whales.

That situation left a depleted population where inbreeding has occurred, possibly leading to a lower rate of reproduction and survival of the young.

“These animals were slaughtered by our father and by our grandfathers. We have to work to bring them back, but stopping the salmon fishery isn’t the answer. Not on its own,” Hovey said.

Another factor identified by McDuffy and Paquet in the threat to the southern resident killer whales is noise pollution.

The whales emit high-frequency (18-32 kHz) echolocation clicks to detect prey and the background noise from commercial shipping and even smaller outboard vessels can interfere with foraging and harm the population.

The same is true of the introduction of contaminants into the water, listed by McDuffy and Paquet as the third main stressor to the whales.

“If additional threats from proposed and approved shipping developments (such as catastrophic and chronic oil spills, ship strikes, and increased vessel noise) combine with the predicted decline of chinook due to climate change, then the population could decline by as much as 1.7 per cent annually, have a 70 per cent probability of declining to fewer than 30 animals, and have a 25 per cent chance of complete extirpation within 100 years,” said the paper.

And if a catastrophic event such as an oil spill were to occur, McDuffy and Paquet’s outlook is even more bleak.

“Based on the percent overlap of oil coverage and critical habitat, we estimate that if a large oil spill were to occur, about 50 per cent of the SRKWs would be killed due to direct exposure to the oil. We estimate that 12.5 per cent of the SRKWs would be killed by exposure to oil from a smaller spill,” they said.

The outlook and the DFO’s approach to the situation is enough to move Peter Hovey to tears.

“I’ve watched these animals my whole life, and I care deeply about them. Right now the government is going after recreational fishing as the low hanging fruit, but it’s not an approach that is going to save the whales,” Hovey said.

“It’s time that they take the situation seriously and develop a plan that actually deals with the threat to the whales.”


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