The only surviving orca calf faces months of underprotection in Canadian waters

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Opinion: The newborn calf began life against considerable odds – and the federal government’s tighter protective measures (which are only seasonal) don’t come into effect until June

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At 18 months of gestation, one of the three expected southern orca calves was safely brought to sea — and it’s nothing short of a biological feat, considering 69 percent of pregnancies end in failure and orcas only give birth every three to 10 years .

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This new calf (J-59) is facing an incredibly significant year and is sadly not joined by the other expected calves. Researchers confirmed this week that the pregnancies of J-36 (Alki) and J-19 (Shachi) have been lost.

Half of the born orcas do not survive their first year of life, mainly due to environmental and anthropogenic stressors and lack of prey. In addition, warmer, more acidic and less hospitable waters are changing marine food webs and further reducing the available food.

As apex sea predators, southern resident orcas perform essential functions for the marine ecosystem that supports the economy, welfare, and environment of coastal communities. These whales stimulate the growth of phytoplankton through their waste, which brings essential nutrients from the ocean depths to the surface waters. Phytoplankton are the building blocks of the entire marine food chain, and they absorb important amounts of CO2, keeping it out of the atmosphere and providing cleaner air for humans.

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And of course, orcas have great cultural value for the indigenous communities in this region.

Given their immense contributions, it’s chilling to know that the newest calf in Canada’s Salish Sea waters will be inadequately protected until the summer, when the federal government’s tougher orca protections – which are purely seasonal – take effect.

And yet, in January alone, five orcas were spotted from the south. These endangered whales are already here – and they are underprotected.

For the past four years, seasonal measures have been in effect between June 1st and November 30th and have included no fishing or boating within the Temporary Protection Zones in part of Swiftsure Bank and off North Pender and Saturna Islands, and area-based fishing closures with varying degrees deadlines. All are designed to support a healthy habitat that is vital for orcas by reducing noise, disturbance and competition for prey to facilitate foraging, socializing, reproduction and rest.

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Even if these seasonal measures are activated, there are breaches (more than 200 are currently being investigated, mainly from vessels observed too close to southern residents in 2021), so we can only imagine how many possible breaches are already under investigation take place.

This year, the sole surviving newborn calf has begun life struggling against significant odds, and its mother J-37 (Hy’Shqa) must consume 40 percent more salmon to produce enough milk to feed her calf.

In this context, the federal government is considering what it will do for orcas from the summer.

Orcas will be safer when area-based closures to commercial and recreational salmon fisheries in the Gulf Islands and Juan de Fuca Strait come into effect by April; when there is more surveillance and enforcement for all vessels, including whale-watching companies and sport fishermen, with penalties for those who knowingly and repeatedly break the law; and if a regional approach is implemented to reduce underwater noise in the Salish Sea.

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We need to get the Canadian government calling for tougher action before it’s too late. The dwindling number of Southerners is alarming and the sad truth is that deaths are far too common. Protective measures never seem to come soon or strong enough. But this new calf offers hope — and individuals and communities can play a role: We can join voices calling for the federal government to implement stronger, science-based safeguards this year and beyond.

A clean, calm, and healthy habitat with plentiful Chinook salmon is what the 74 southern resident orcas need to recover. Every single protective measure is essential to increase the population’s chances of recovery and survival – but it can only work if it works.

Christianne Wilhelmson is Executive Director and Lucero González is a Biodiversity Activist at the Georgia Strait Alliance, a non-profit organization solely dedicated to long-term, climate-focused solutions to marine threats and habitat protection in Canada’s Salish Sea and inland waters.

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