The federal government plans to help protect orcas by limiting fishing of chinook salmon

A southern resident killer whale emerging from the water [Credit: Ken Balcomb]

The federal government will impose limitations on the fishing of chinook salmon as a measure to help southern resident killer whales.

Chinook salmon is the primary food source for these whales, who live off the west coast of Canada and the northern United States. Only 76 southern resident whales remain, which puts them at a high risk of extinction. To give the whales more exclusive access to the fish that make up their diet, the government is cutting the amount of chinook salmon humans are allowed to catch by 25 to 35 percent.

“We have determined that the species faces an imminent threat to its survival and recovery, and we need to keep taking concrete action,” said fisheries minister Dominic LeBlanc in a statement.

The plan will also attempt to ensure fisheries don’t overfish, implementing time and size limits, and closing select areas to fishing.

Person holding a chinook salmon
Chinook salmon are the primary food source for the southern resident killer whales. [Credit: U.S. Geological Survey]

Jeffery Young, a senior scientist with the David Suzuki Foundation, sees the protection of salmon as a step in the right direction. Young told the

Toronto Star that studies have shown lack of prey is a critical factor for the orcas. But Young also believes the protection is a positive step for the salmon themselves, who are heavily fished.

“A lot more work is needed not just to protect the orcas . . . but actually to rebuild those chinook salmon and ensure that we’re managing fisheries to get enough chinook past the fishery, available to whales and then into spawning grounds so they can rebuild.”

But some aren’t so happy about the government’s new plan. Owen Bird, executive director of the Sport Fishing Institute of British Columbia, is skeptical that an insufficient number of chinook salmon is the reason for the whales’ decline.

“There are other factors that could play more or less of a role. . . . There’s noise, interference, access to prey,” he told the Star.

A press release from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans does acknowledge other causes for the loss of the orcas, stating, “Whales face threats from lack of prey, acoustic and physical disturbance, and pollution.”

Fishers are still awaiting details about the new regulations, which come a few months after the government pledged to put $12 million towards orca research.

But the government sees this as a helpful step in its larger plans to help orca populations. Catherine McKenna, Minister of Environment and Climate Change, believes it is important to take immediate steps.

“. . . [W]e have determined that the species faces an imminent threat to its survival and recovery, and we need to keep taking concrete action.”

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