Resident Killer Whale Recovery Plan

As anglers fishing along Canada’s Pacific coast we are fortunate to be able to see all kinds of wonderful wildlife while out fishing on the water. For many the most desirable animals to see are the various whale, dolphin and porpoise species, with a Killer Whale sighting likely topping any preference list.
Although to everyone but marine mammal specialists all Killer Whales look much the same, in fact there are three very distinct populations present in the northeast Pacific Ocean – Resident, Transient and Offshore. By their very name the last type are most infrequently seen and of which least is known about, usually only coming onshore when conditions out on the continental shelf and beyond are unfavourable to them. Transients are seen all around the BC coast and all year round at that, feeding exclusively on other marine mammals some of which, such as seals and sea lions, are thought to be at or near historic levels of abundance. Groceries o’plenty for Transients hereabouts!
The Resident Killer Whales have evolved into two distinct sub-populations, Northern (NRKW) and Southern (SRKW) and despite their name are usually only resident in core territories for the summer and fall, ranging quite widely up and down the coast during the remainder of the year. The population size and trend is quite different for each with the northern stock generally increasing in abundance over the past 40 years to about 280 animals now, while the southern population seems stubbornly stuck at approximately 80 animals over the same time period.
Resident Killer Whales have evolved into fish eaters, primarily salmon and with the best available science indicating a decided preference for chinook salmon, followed by chums in the fall. Readers probably discerned in the last sentence why these animals would rate more than a passing mention in a column ostensibly focused on recreational fishing. The dietary preference of RKW’s has been understood for a decade or more and for those of us who think about the big picture and all the things that can influence the regional recreational salmon fishery there’s been a gnawing feeling that sooner or later this fact was going to come “onto the front burner” as it were.
And so it has, with DFO recently releasing a proposed “Action Plan for the Northern and Southern Resident Killer Whale in Canada” to guide the recovery of these two populations which, under the federal Species At Risk Act (SARA), were listed back in 2003 as Threatened and Endangered respectively. One immediate challenge for any organization or individual wishing to respond, especially those in the fishing community now in mid-season, is that the period for public comment ends on August 14! After years of preparation I’m hoping the federal government can be persuaded to grant additional time for reasoned public comment.
Under several overarching themes the proposed action plan describes 94 measures intended to facilitate the recovery of resident killer whales, some of which could have serious implications for the regional recreational fishery if implemented without consideration of the possible impacts. Broad Strategy 2 states “Ensure that RKW have an adequate and accessible food supply to allow recovery”, followed by an approach to “Determine the seasonal diet, feeding areas and energetic requirements of RKW” and “Identify features that define quality prey” for them.
More specifically the plan proposes to “Examine CANFIS/CPUE (catch per unit effort) records to assist in identifying areas of prey aggregation in order to anticipate RKW feeding grounds” and then “Develop prospective actions to be taken during poor chinook return years to ensure sufficient prey availability for RKW”. These would include moves to “Investigate strategic fishery closures as a possible tool to reduce RKW prey competition in specific feeding areas (e.g. modeling, fishery closure tests)” and “Investigate the use and implementation of protected area and/or fishery closures to protect important foraging and beach rubbing locations”.
As well the plan proposes to “Take into account both seasonal and cumulative effects of poor chinook returns on RKW when managing salmon fisheries” and to “Assess potential impacts of enhancement and aquaculture operations on RKW through effects on wild salmon populations, and mitigate if detected”. I never thought my little hootchies would offer much competition to apex predators like Killer Whales but evidently I could be mistaken!
One interesting proposed measure (#24) is to “Protect and preserve the freshwater habitat of important RKW prey stocks” – who would have ever thought that sustaining killer whales might finally oblige both federal and provincial governments to gets serious about in-river habitat protection?
There’s much more in the proposed action plan and obviously I have only highlighted those parts of immediate possible relevance to our fishery. I would urge everyone concerned about these animals and coastal fisheries to download it at:

www.sararegistry.gc.ca/document/default_e.cfm?documentID=2944

Just in case you are tempted to put your boat up for sale immediately there’s possibly more reassuring information to be found in a 2013 report from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) fisheries section. Killer Whales are of course quite oblivious to the lines we humans have drawn on maps of the world and so RKW, especially the Southern population, are frequently found in US waters like Haro Strait and Puget Sound. As such both federal governments are committed to working together on joint plans to ensure the recovery of these animals and so in 2011 and 2012 NOAA and DFO co-convened a series of three scientific workshops to consider the following key question:
“To what extent are salmon fisheries affecting the recovery of SRKW by reducing their abundance of available prey, and what are the consequences to their survival and recovery?”
One hundred scientists attended the workshops to present, evaluate and critique available information in an open and inclusive process and a final report was prepared by a panel of seven scientists chaired by Dr. Ray Hilborn and released in late 2012. Key findings of this independent panel were that it would be a “gross extrapolation” to implicate any particular fishery as affecting the SRKW population growth rate and that no “surgical adjustment” of fishing is likely to be effective. While somewhat reassuring, DFO in its own proposed action plan has obviously decided to propose possible management measures that differ from these finding that the department itself had some hand in developing.
I’ll close by stating the obvious – this initiative has to be closely watched and it won’t be the last time this topic is reported on in this space. I can’t think there’s an angler around who wouldn’t want to see anything but an assured future for Resident Killer Whales, all the same the possibility of fishery closures that bring no measurable upside to their intended beneficiaries while wreaking significant socio-economic damage to coastal communities is something to be on guard against.