David Suzuki

On a misty morning off the British Columbia coast, several sleek black fins slowly break through glass-calm water in perfect unison. The sound of blowing air echoes across the water as the animals gracefully surface to take a breath.

Killer whales, also known as orcas, are an iconic symbol of the Pacific Northwest. Coastal First Nations recognize them as powerful animals that should be respected and left unharmed. Killer whales represent the strength of love and the strong family bonds needed for survival. These “wolves of the sea” are at the top of the ocean food web, similar to wolves’ status on land.

Killer whales add millions of dollars every summer to coastal economies through whale-watching tours, paddling excursions and recreational boating.

Our relationship with killer whales has changed dramatically over the past 40 years.Threats in the 1970s included shootings and live captures for marine parks. Once feared and considered a nuisance, today killer whales are held in high esteem. Yet they continue to be threatened by pollution, ocean noise, food availability, habitat destruction and climate change.

Residents, Bigg’s (or transient) and offshore killer whales on B.C.’s coast are species at risk under federal law. Resident killer whales – the salmon eaters – include a northern and southern population, each genetically, culturally and acoustically unique. The southern resident population sits at the top of Canada’s endangered species list with only 81 remaining, while the 250-member northern resident population is considered threatened under Canadian law.

This week the federal government released a long-overdue draft Action Plan for resident killer whales, a significant step to protecting one of Canada’s most endangered species.  Strategies focus on maintaining food supplies, limiting pollution effects, reducing disturbance from human activities and protecting more critical habitat.

Even with these changes, resident killer whale populations aren’t expected to recover for at least 25 years because of their small populations and low reproductive rates. Having an Action Plan, though, should help them breathe a little easier.

Comments on the Action Plan are being accepted until April 16, 2014, at pac.dfo-mpo.gc.ca/consultation/sara-lep/cal-eng.html

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