The Canadian government has announced new protections for B.C.'s southern residents killer whales, whose population has dwindled to 75.
The enhanced protective measures include the creation of temporary "sanctuary zones" that are closed to vessel traffic, and the partial shutdown of some recreational and commercial salmon fisheries. The minimum distance for private boats and whale watching vessels is also being increased to 400 metres.
"The measures announced today reflect the commitment to recover the whales in a manner that takes in account important economic factors and collaboration with First Nations and coastal communities," Fisheries Minister Jonathan Wilkinson said in a news release.
The new rules apply to an area the government has called the "critical habitat" for the population, identified as an area where the orcas tend to forage for food.
"We will be implementing area based closures for salmon fisheries in a few specific areas of importance for south resident killer whale foraging," said Jonathan Wilkinson, Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and The Canadian Coast Guard.
The government said it is "committed to releasing an additional one million juvenile Chinook annually from Chilliwack Hatchery for five years" to support whale recovery.
The new rules for boat traffic are coming into effect on June 1.
Apart from the new minimum distance, vessels will be asked to reduce speed to less than seven knots if they are within one kilometre of killer whales, and to turn off echo sounders and idle in neutral.
Large vessels like tankers and cruise ships will also have to slow down. Robert Lewis-Manning with the Chamber of Shipping applauded the move but told CTV News it could cause challenges.
"For a tidal window where it has to go for example under a bridge at an exact time, well, you have to time that very carefully. So taking that flexibility is a bigger risk to not making that window," he said.
There is an option for whale watching companies to get closer. They can apply for authorization from the Minister of Transport to approach transient killer whales up to 200 metres.
"It will be quite an expedited process,” said Terry Beech, MP and Parliamentary secretary to Minister of Transport said.
He went on to say there is no cost to the companies, and no restricted number available.
The no-go zones have been set up in three areas off Pender island, Saturna Island and at Swiftsure Bank, where no vessel traffic will be allowed between June 1 to October 31.
The Raincoast Conservation Foundation said it's encouraged by the announcement, but that more could be done to protect the killer whale population.
"Unfortunately, the important feeding areas closed to salmon fishing are smaller than last year, fishing for Chinook can still occur in many places, and we don't have targeted reductions for noise in the Salish Sea. But recovery is a long term process, and today's announcement marks a bold step on this road," Misty MacDuffee said in a statement.