Government dedicates $12 million to orca research

a group of southern resident orcas Photo courtesy of YouTube/NOAA Fisheries

For the first time since they were listed as endangered in 2003, southern resident orcas are receiving attention (and cash) from the federal government. The Government of Canada has pledged $12 million to fund research into how better to protect the whales from human activities.

Numbering just 76, southern resident orcas, who spend much of their time in the waters off the coast of BC, are at a critical risk of extinction. The greatest risks to their survival? Lack of food, excessive noise, and fishing equipment — all of which were caused by humans.

The government hopes that research can help determine how whales are affected by human activity and how to minimize those effects. $9.1 million of the funding will go towards developing and testing technologies that will help alert ships to nearby whales, with the goal of preventing collisions, and $3.1 million will go into studies on the effects of prey scarcity and underwater noise on the orcas.

“We have a responsibility to ensure that whales are protected for future generations, and we continue to consider all available options to further protect whales in our waters,” Fisheries Minister Dominic LeBlanc said in a statement. “We are listening to mariners and making investments under the Oceans Protection Plan that will help us to better understand and address human impacts on our precious marine life.”

Southern resident orca swimming in front a shipping boat
Southern resident orcas are often in danger of being struck by shipping vessels or becoming trapped in fishing lines. [Credit: Valerie Shore/Shorelines Photography]

The University of BC’s Marine Mammal Research Unit is conducting one of the studies being funded. This study hopes to examine the availability of Chinook salmon, the southern resident whales’ primary food source. “With only 76 of these animals left, every piece of information we can obtain about the threats they face is crucial to their survival,” Andrew Trites, the director of that study, said.

The 2018 federal budget has also allotted $167.4 million over five years to help protect and recover Canada’s endangered whale species, including not just the southern resident orcas, but also the North Atlantic Right whale and the St. Lawrence Estuary Beluga.

While researchers have expressed excitement about the funding, many of them also believe that immediate action — beyond studies and research — needs to be taken to protect the whales. “We could study them literally to death at this point,” Paul Paquet, an adjunct professor at the University of Victoria, told DeSmog Canada. Paquet, and some other researchers, feel that we already know what the threats to whales are, and now we need to work to remove them.

“Our major concern is that most of this has been well known since the early 2000s,” Paquet said.

Dana Tuyel, a lawyer for Ecojustice, has a similar view. “So far these documents are just plans to make plans,” she said an interview with DeSmog in February. “What’s needed is to actually implement what we’ve learned about the species and what needs to be done.”

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