SRKW and their prey.

SRKW. It’s just an acronym, perhaps not one that many recreational fishermen are familiar with but it is one that that in the near future I almost guarantee anglers will be hearing and reading about too often, and for none of the right reasons. It stands for Southern Resident Killer Whales, the salmon eating population that ranges over a large area from Vancouver Island down to northern California. There is a larger Northern RKW population, with the southern part of their range overlapping with that of the SRKW population and extending into Southeast Alaska.

To get to the essence of why SRKW are relevant to a column like this there are two things to consider. Firstly, resident Killer Whales are considered “iconic animals”, and with a slowly declining population (< 80) the SRKW’s are listed as endangered under the federal Species At Risk Act (SARA). Secondly, research shows overwhelmingly that resident killer whales feed to a large extent on chinook salmon whenever possible, with chum salmon coming a distant second in the fall months only. So now you can see where this discussion is going …. Recently the federal government hosted a two and a half day symposium in Vancouver to bring together those interested in the SRKW population and with ideas on their recovery. It should be noted that no individuals or organizations from the recreational fishery were invited to participate despite our fishery’s obvious interest in the outcomes. Fortunately several members of the SFAB were able to attend and they came away troubled by the proceedings - the overwhelming feeling by environmental NGO’s, which were well represented, is that chinook fishing in much of southern BC should be ended, period. And in that opinion they likely came away encouraged for this is what Minister Dominic Leblanc had to say. After speaking to his governments legal responsibility under SARA and the moral responsibility on behalf of all Canadians to restore this population he stated “I as minister and my government are prepared to make the tough decisions necessary, including around allocations and fisheries management issues in order to ensure SRKW are able to find sufficient prey for their recovery and to ensure their long term health.” Get the picture now? At the close of the symposium DFO issued a news release headlined “Indigenous groups, science community, marine industry, and government partners make progress in protecting endangered killer whale population”. Seems like everyone’s mind is made up except no one talked to the hundreds of thousands of recreational fishermen or the organizations that represent them. Unlike the Northern RKW population that has steadily increased in size in recent decades, from about 120 animals in the early 1970’s to almost 300 now, the Southern RKW is slowly decreasing in population size with a troubling persistence of poor survival of juveniles to adulthood. With less than ten breeding age females in the population, themselves getting steadily older, the demographic trend for SRKW isn’t encouraging. Two other core issues have been identified as threats to their well being, noise pollution and toxins present in their bodies. The noise issue is thought to compromise the killer whales ability to locate and capture prey and as apex predators they are the final repository of the chemical pollutants they pick up over the course of their potentially long lives. My own guess is that as the SRKW become less well fed the effects of the toxins becomes more pronounced as these animals draw down their blubber, compounding the effects and increasing the consequences. The federal government has committed to more scientific research on both these issues but the easy quick fix, if only to show it is doing something substantive in the short-term beyond research, is to ensure more chinook are available to SRKW’s. There’s two ways of doing this, curtail fisheries or create more chinook. In 2012 DFO in partnership with the US NOAA sponsored an independent review of whether or not reducing chinook harvest would have a meaningful positive effect for the SRKW population. A key point in its report states that the panel “is therefore sceptical that reduced chinook salmon harvesting would have a large impact on the abundance of chinook salmon available to SRKW.” That implies harvest reductions might have a small impact on chinook abundance available to killer whales but you can bet that such actions will have a large impact on the fishery that accounts for half of the all fishery (commercial, recreational and aquaculture) GDP generated in BC. A more meaningful approach might be to increase the number of chinook available to the Southern Resident Killer Whales. To this end Minister Leblanc announced that funding from the new Coastal Restoration Plan would be made available for chinook freshwater habitat upgrading work, especially in the Fraser River. All well and good but this work will likely take decades to show a substantive positive effect. A quicker approach would be to sanction a number of strategically placed chinook smolt netpen projects around the southern end of Vancouver Island, with the aim that returning adults would provide food in the core habitat for the SRKW’s. This approach would generate results within a few years but will likely be opposed by the enviro NGO’s who are typically hostile to salmon enhancement in general and hatchery production in particular. However, at some point there has to an option other than the knee-jerk reaction of constraining fisheries or even outright closures. How this all plays out is unknown at this point but for sure it will be a topic that dominates fishery planning discussions throughout the winter and spring period to come. In the meantime I urge all anglers to become as knowledgeable as possible on this topic because the organizations that represent the recreational fishery are going to need all the encouragement and support they can get to make sure to the extent possible that the recreational fishery isn’t skewered to mitigate a situation arising from the poor stewardship of the Southern Resident Killer Whales and their environments exercised by the Canadian and US publics more broadly.