MP petitions government to save orcas

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Southern Vancouver Island is home to many—man and beast. Killer whales comprise a small percentage of the island’s residents, but act as a major source of regional pride. However, just like many other native species, they are being displaced by human activity.

The federal government has known the orcas to be a threatened species since 2003 and was ordered in 2009 by federal courts to implement an action plan. In 2011, a plan was decided on, designed with recovery strategy goals to meet by March 2013. Not wanting to sit idle, Esquimalt-Juan de Fuca MP Randall Garrison tabled the orca situation in October 2013, and when no response came by November, he began a petition. On Feb. 25 this year, Garrison presented the petition to the House of Commons.

In a phone interview, Garrison explained that he has been developing a recovery plan with many of the parties affected by the orca population, including community members. The plan is composed of four parts: securing funds for research and monitoring, reduction of chemical pollution, noise pollution management (of noise caused by commercial ships), and restoration of Chinook stocks—the favourite food of resident orca whales.

Garrison said, “[On] Feb. 14, [the] federal court pointed out that the government is in violation of the law, its own law, if it doesn’t bring these [recovery strategies] forward.” Apparently, there is new money in the 2014 Budget, and Garrison says, “It’s a result of the court decision where they were told, ‘You have to do this.’ Now, which species they’re going to allocate that to first, I don’t know, because the department, the minister, admitted that they’re 163 recovery strategies overdue… I don’t know the others but [the orcas have] got to be one of the high priorities.”

The MP says he is trying to remain optimistic because of the federal court decision and the fact that there is funding for recovery strategies for endangered species. Whether the minister will take note and dismiss the plea or designate funds for an orca recovery plan and see to its materialization is not yet known.

Garrison says, “They have to give some response. If they say they’re just taking note of it, we [will] say, ‘not good enough,’ [which] gives us a chance to go back at them. However, because of the court decision and the funding, there is a [greater] possibility they will do more than [take note], and the deadline for that is April 11. So they have to say either, ‘…we’re ignoring you,’… or what they’re going to do, by April 11.”

Oak Bay-Gordon Head’s MLA, Andrew Weaver, says, “I totally support [Garrison],” on this matter. Commenting on a feasible recovery strategy for the orcas, Weaver says the government cut funding of marine contaminants research being done by Peter Ross, an orca researcher and long-time observer of the southern population. The data from that research may have been key to understanding the orcas’ future. When asked if there was a possibility of Ross’s program being revived, Garrison said, “It’s obviously something that needs to happen as part of this strategy.”

UVic professor and whale researcher Dr. David Duffus describes the southern population as a “major mess with a reduction in potential breeders” due to past capturing events. He says it may be too late for this particular population, but that the fact that a politician even tabled this issue is “breathtaking.” According to Duffus, the DFO “has priorities, [and] marine mammals aren’t part of it.” Duffus expressed excitement in response to recent legal threats received by the DFO for violations of Canada’s Species at Risk Act.

Earlier this month, the federal government released a draft of an action plan. The plan outlines activities to be undertaken by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) , but says that other jurisdictions, organizations, and individuals have a role to play as well. Regional consultation on the plan started on March 3 and will continue until April 16.

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