Canada's fisheries minister, Dominic LeBlanc, announced in Ottawa Thursday (October 26) that regulations will be enacted by next spring that will require boaters to keep at least 200 metres distant from B.C.'s endangered southern resident orca population.
Current guidelines recommend that boaters observe a 100-metre buffer zone in the Salish Sea's Canadian waters, while Washington state law has for years required a strict 200-yard separation between watercrafts and orcas belonging to the related J, K, and L pods.
Fewer than 80 orcas from the three pods remain in the Salish Sea, the name given to the combined waters of the connected Strait of Georgia, Puget Sound, and Juan De Fuca Strait. The population has been declining steadily for the past two decades and has shown little growth during the past 40 years.
Research has pointed to several factors as having contributed to the decline in the resident orcas' numbers, including marine noise pollution hindering communications and hunting efforts, pollution, constant close activity year-round from numerous commercial cross-border whale-watching operations, and a decline in the population of chinook salmon, a staple food of the orcas.
In an October 26 news release, Christianne Wilhelmson, executive director of the nonprofit group Georgia Strait Alliance, said: "With this policy, the federal government is strengthening the current nonenforceable guideline for vessels to remain 100 metres from southern resident killer whales. This is a positive step forward; this is a measure that will help to reduce human disturbance of marine mammals and may also prevent whale deaths, in particular, that result from collisions.
"This measure brings Canadian regulations in 2018 into alignment with those implemented in 2011 in the United States, where approach distances for boaters are 200 yards (or 182 metres) from killer whales.
"This announcement is an indication that the government is listening and starting to take action on what has been a proposed amendment to the Marine Mammal Act for some 10 years."
Meanwhile, a group of scientists published a paper Thursday (October 26) that shows the southern resident orcas have a 25-percent chance of becoming extinct in the next century.
The paper, published in Scientific Reports journal, evaluated anthropogenic (human caused) threats to the marine-mammals' population based on 40 years of research collected by the Washington state-based Center for Whale Research.
The scientific team—led by the Chicago Zoological Society's Robert Lacy and UVic adjunct professor Paul Paquet from the Vancouver Island-based Raincoast Conservation Foundation—predicted that a recovery of the southern residents would require a 30-percent increase above average levels in chinook salmon populations or at least a 15-percent increase combined with a 50-percent decrease in habitat noise and disturbances.
According to an October 26 Raincoast release, though: "Unfortunately, key threats to the population are predicted to increase. This includes an expected increase in noise because of increased shipping and a predicted decrease in the abundance of Chinook salmon because of climate change."
Raincoast researcher Paquet offered some hope in the same bulletin: “The most important message from our study is that with appropriate and resolute actions, the chance of survival for these iconic whales over the next 100 years can be significantly improved. Canadians, Americans, and global citizens care about the future of these whales."