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Sole surviving orca calf faces months of under-protection in Canadian waters

Opinion: The newborn calf started life battling significant odds – and the federal government’s stricter protective measures (which are merely seasonal) don’t come into effect until June

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After 18 months of gestation, one of three expected southern resident killer whales has been delivered safely by the sea – and that’s no less than a biological feat, given that 69% of pregnancies fail and killer whales give birth as infrequently as once every three to 10 years.

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This new calf (J-59) is facing an incredibly significant year and, unfortunately, it will not be accompanied by the other expected calves. Researchers confirmed this week that the D-36 (Alki) and D-19 (Shachi) pregnancies were lost.

Half of orcas born do not survive their first year of life, largely due to environmental and anthropogenic stressors and lack of prey. These challenges are compounded by warmer, more acidic and less hospitable waters that alter marine food webs, further reducing available food.

As marine apex predators, Southern Resident Killer Whales provide essential functions to the marine ecosystem, which supports the economies, well-being, and overall environment of coastal communities. These whales stimulate the growth of phytoplankton through their waste products, which bring essential nutrients from the depths of the ocean to the surface waters. Phytoplankton are the building blocks of the entire marine food chain, and they absorb significant amounts of CO2, keeping it out of the atmosphere, giving humans cleaner air.

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And, of course, killer whales hold deep cultural value for the indigenous communities of this region.

Given their immense contributions, it’s heartbreaking to know that the newborn will be underprotected in Canadian waters of the Salish Sea until summer, when the federal government’s tougher protective measures for killer whales – which are merely seasonal – will come into effect.

And yet, in January alone, there were five sightings of Southern Resident orcas. These endangered whales are already here – and they are underprotected.

For the past four years, seasonal measures have been in effect between June 1 and November 30, and have included no fishing or boating in the interim sanctuary areas in part of Swiftsure Bank and off the North Islands Pender and Saturna, and area-based fishing closures with varying effective dates. All are designed to support a healthy habitat essential for orcas by reducing noise, disturbance and competition for prey to facilitate foraging, socializing, breeding and resting.

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Even when these seasonal measures are activated, there are violations (more than 200 are currently under investigation, mostly vessels sighted too close to southern residents in 2021), so we can only imagine how many Potential transgressions are already happening right now.

This year, the only surviving newborn calf began life battling significant odds, and its J-37 dam (Hy’Shqa) must consume 40% more salmon to produce enough milk to feed her calf.

It is in this context that the federal government is considering what it will do for orcas starting in the summer.

Killer whales will be safer when area closures for commercial and recreational salmon fishing in the Gulf Islands and Strait of Juan de Fuca come into effect by April; when there is more oversight and enforcement for all vessels, including whale-watching operators and sportfishing, with penalties for those who knowingly and repeatedly break the law; and when a regional approach is implemented to reduce underwater noise in the Salish Sea.

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We must ensure that the Canadian government hears the calls for stronger action before it is too late. The decrease in the number of southern residents is alarming and the sad truth is that deaths are far too frequent. Protective measures never seem to come early or strong enough. However, this new calf gives hope – and individuals and communities can play a part: we can unite our voices to demand that the federal government put in place stronger, science-based protections this year and beyond. of the.

A clean, calm and healthy habitat with abundant Chinook salmon is what the 74 southern resident killer whales need to recover. Each of the protective measures is essential to increase the chances of recovery and survival of the population, but they can only work when they are in force.

Christianne Wilhelmson is Executive Director and Lucero González is Biodiversity Campaigner at the Georgia Strait Alliance, a nonprofit dedicated exclusively to long-term climate-focused solutions to marine threats and habitat protection in the United States. Canadian waters of the Salish Sea and inland waters.

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