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British Columbia Ottawa bans salmon fishing to save the whales - but two other threats to their survival still loom

The federal government has put strict limits on the fishing of Chinook salmon, in order to leave the endangered Southern Resident killer whales with a chance at a meal.

Northwest Fisheries Science Center/The Canadian Press

B.C. Premier John Horgan lamented last week that he won’t be able to go fishing for Chinook salmon this summer – the federal government has put strict limits on the fishery to leave the endangered Southern Resident killer whales with a chance at a meal.

“Had there not been almost a complete closure of the Chinook fishery in Strait of Juan de Fuca, I probably would have gone fishing with some friends,” Mr. Horgan said as the legislature session ended and he outlined his plans for the summer.

He expects to hear from many British Columbians about their concerns about the state of wild salmon, he said.

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“How are we going to get out of this mess?”

There are many messes to get out of.

Mr. Horgan – who is fighting a war with B.C. business, his fellow New Democrat premier Rachel Notley in Alberta and the Prime Minister over his opposition to the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion – didn’t bring up his lack of barbecue choices by happenstance. There is a link between the salmon, the whales and the pipeline.

Canada has declared that the Southern Resident killer whales face an imminent threat not just to their recovery, but to their survival, in part due to vessel traffic and pollution. Meanwhile, it is investing billions in a project that will add one large tanker of heavy oil a day to the waters where the whales live and feed.

That gives the pipeline foes some ammunition, but Mr. Horgan also has his own wild-salmon dilemma to address. This month, there are 20 fish-farm tenures up for renewal in the Broughton Archipelago. The government is being urged to cancel the permits by opponents of the farms who say they put wild salmon at risk of disease. But the industry is a significant part of the regional economy.

Ottawa has announced a reduction in the Chinook fishery in the name of protecting the Southern Resident killer whales. Dominic LeBlanc, the Minister of Fisheries, and Catherine McKenna, Minister of Environment, jointly made the announcement for both commercial and recreation fisheries in the Strait, as well as around the Gulf Islands and at the mouth of the Fraser River.

The reductions have been imposed under the Species at Risk Act – with just 76 whales left in this population, they face an imminent threat to survival.

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”These iconic and awe-inspiring whales are cherished by Canadians across the country and visitors alike and protecting them is essential to keeping our oceans healthy and dynamic,” Ms. McKenna said in a statement when the closure was announced.

Mr. Horgan’s government has cited the fate of this population of whales as one of the reasons it opposes the Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion project, which Ottawa has now taken over.

Kinder Morgan’s Burnaby terminal currently loads 44 tankers a year carrying heavy oil and that is projected to increase to 408 tankers a year once the pipeline expansion is complete. Those tankers will follow shipping lanes that cut through the Salish Sea to the open Pacific Ocean where this population of whales spend most of the year.

Rebecca Reid is the Department of Fisheries and Oceans’ regional director-general for the Pacific. In an interview, she explained that the issue of prey is urgent: The whales are starving and their primary food source – the Chinook – is in decline up and down the coast.

That is just one of the three main factors that have been blamed for the threat to the Southern Resident killer whales. Pollution and the underwater noise from vessel traffic are also hurting the whales.

As part of the Oceans Protections Plan (which was promised in conjunction with the pipeline approval), Canada has committed to study the cumulative impact of underwater noise on the whales.

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Ms. Reid said there are a number of studies now under way to better understand how shipping traffic affects the whales, including trials to determine if slowing vessel speed or moving traffic within the shipping lanes will help.

While Mr. Horgan dreams of landing a fat Chinook this summer, he, like Ottawa, faces difficult decisions about what his government is willing to do to clean up the mess that is the decline of wild Pacific salmon and the whales that depend on them.

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