Time is running out for Salish Sea orcas
The orcas of the Salish Sea remain in a precarious position. Southern Resident Killer Whales, as they are known, now number just 78 after 12 months of high mortality. They are struggling as their preferred food, Chinook salmon, is in decline, and they are threatened by underwater noise, primarily from shipping around the busy Port of Vancouver. When it’s noisy underwater, orcas find it hard to communicate, navigate and find food.
Last week, the orcas were given a glimmer of hope. Green Marine, a voluntary environmental certification program for the North American marine industry, released two performance indicators designed to reduce noise impacts on marine mammals. WWF-Canada participated in the development of these indicators, which took two years, in a process that brought together naval architects, members of the shipping industry and representatives from environmental organizations.
Also last week, the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority added incentives to its existing EcoAction* program for quieter ships. This means that ships that have a reduced noise output will benefit from discounted rates when calling at the Port of Vancouver. The noise reduction measures that qualify in the program will be expanded in future years. The Port is the first in the world to put into place a marine-noise reduction incentive for vessels, in the hope of mitigating the effects of noise pollution on marine mammals like orcas, porpoises and whales.
These two initiatives are steps toward quieting the Salish Sea for the species who call it home, and we applaud Green Marine and the Port Authority for implementing these programs.
However, Salish Sea orcas need a bigger recovery plan, one that addresses the multiple threats they face. The beautiful, iconic Southern Resident Killer Whales were designated as endangered in 2001 by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC). It took 15 years for the federal government to release a proposed plan for their recovery – which they did, in the summer of 2016. The final action plan has yet to be released.
Without some real changes in their critical habitat, there’s a very real possibility that these orcas could dwindle and disappear. They face a long road before they thrive again: because of the Southern Resident’s small population size and the species’ low reproductive rate, even under the most favourable conditions, recovery will take more than 25 years. But over the next decade, shipping traffic in the Salish Sea is projected to grow significantly.
The orcas of the Salish Sea need a recovery plan that is strong enough to effectively deal with the multiple threats that they face right now, as well as the threats of the future. Let’s hope the plan comes, and soon – with seven deaths since January 2015, time is running out.