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.
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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.
In March, the federal government released a long-overdue draft Action Plan for resident killer whales. Following Fisheries and Oceans Canada's 2011 Recovery Strategy, the Action Plan is a significant step to protecting one of Canada's most endangered species. Strategies — many to be implemented in the next two to five years — include maintaining ample food resources for resident killer whales, ensuring pollutants do not prevent recovery, reducing disturbances from human activities, particularly underwater noise, and identifying and protecting additional areas of critical habitat for resident killer whales. Further protection will come from measures such as restricting whale-watching hours and boat speed in some areas and integrating guidelines into tourism programs and boater-education courses.
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.