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Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard Jonathan Wilkinson speaks about the protection of southern resident killer whales during a news conference on Parliament Hill, in Ottawa, on Oct. 31, 2018.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

The federal government has promised new measures will be in place by next spring to protect the last surviving southern resident killer whales off B.C.’s coast, including additional limits on marine-vessel noise and pollutants as well as efforts to rebuild stocks of Chinook salmon that are the whales’ main source of food.

Wednesday’s announcement is the latest in a string of initiatives since the courts quashed the Trans Mountain oil-pipeline expansion in the summer, a ruling that was based in large part on the threat of increased oil tanker traffic to the endangered population of 74 whales. To revive the project, Ottawa needs to show in a new environmental assessment review that it has a plan to protect the declining population.

“These iconic animals are facing significant threats," Jonathan Wilkinson, Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard, told a news conference on Wednesday. He said his department will identify and protect new areas of critical habitat for the whales, and the changes should be in place before the whales return to the Salish Sea next May.

But a coalition of ecology groups that is suing Ottawa to invoke emergency measures available under its Species at Risk Act will continue with court action.

“It’s encouraging that there is a commitment to improve the conditions within critical habitat by the time the whales return to the Salish Sea in the spring,” said Misty MacDuffee of the Raincoast Conservation Foundation. But she said Canada needs to use its powers under an emergency order to ensure that changes are made swiftly.

Christianne Wilhelmson, executive director of the Georgia Strait Alliance, said the government is moving in the right direction, but too slowly.

“We lost a season because the government didn’t act when we asked them to do these kinds of things under an emergency order last January,” she said. “We have set a high bar of what is needed to save these whales, and for the past 15 years, the government keeps shooting below that bar, and then wondering why it isn’t working.”

This summer, the federal government closed Chinook fisheries in key areas of the whales' habitat in the waters between Washington State and British Columbia, and reduced the overall harvest by close to one-third. But critics called for a complete closing, saying there isn’t enough data to determine whether the killer whales have enough prey.

Poor Chinook returns on the Fraser River this year have been tied to the loss of a young female in the J pod, known as Scarlett, whose emaciated condition sparked an unprecedented, cross-border effort to feed her. She is now presumed dead, and other members of the population are also showing signs of starvation.

Mr. Wilkinson said Canada will spend another $60-million over the next five years to help the whales, including money to restore salmon habitat and boost the number of hatchery-raised Chinook. Adding one million juveniles would result in an additional 30,000 adult Chinook available for the southern resident killer whales in three to four years, according to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

Greg Taylor of Watershed Watch Salmon Society said the hatchery investment is ill-conceived. There are already concerns about hatchery-raised fish having a negative impact on wild salmon populations, and there is not enough data on Chinook returns to measure how much can safely be allocated to commercial and recreational fisheries. The only in-season count, on the Fraser River, showed the spring return of Chinook this year was extremely low.

Mr. Wilkinson agreed his department needs to step up its management of Chinook stock, given its importance to the endangered southern resident killer whales. “We need to do a better job and invest additional resources with respect to stock assessment,” he said. “That will be a continuing priority for me, to have better science to ensure we are making the appropriate decisions around conservation.”