Evidence of meeting #114 for Fisheries and Oceans in the 42nd Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament’s site, as are the minutes.) The winning word was whales.

A recording is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

Chair  Mr. Ken McDonald (Avalon, Lib.)
Christianne Wilhelmson  Executive Director, Georgia Strait Alliance
David Bain  Chief Scientist, Orca Conservancy
Moira Brown  Senior Scientist, Canadian Whale Institute
Robert Michaud  Scientific Director, Research and Education group on Marine Mammals
Lance Barrett-Lennard  Director, Marine Mammal Research Program, Coastal Ocean Research Institute
Blaine Calkins  Red Deer—Lacombe, CPC
Colin Fraser  West Nova, Lib.

11:05 a.m.

The Chair Mr. Ken McDonald (Avalon, Lib.)

I call the meeting to order.

Good morning, everyone. Pursuant to the order of reference of Wednesday, June 6, 2018, we are studying the situation of endangered whales, or as we know it, Motion No. 154.

Go ahead, Mr. Doherty.

11:05 a.m.


Todd Doherty Conservative Cariboo—Prince George, BC

I want to ask for an update. Over the weekend, there was a terrible fire in your neck of the woods, at Hickey & Sons Fisheries at O'Donnell's on St. Mary's Bay. The fish plant burnt down, potentially stranding about a hundred jobs. Could you provide an update to the committee? Also, your Conservative colleagues want to send, through you, our wishes to those who are impacted.

11:05 a.m.

Mr. Ken McDonald (Avalon, Lib.)

The Chair

Thanks for that, Mr. Doherty.

I have been speaking to the owner of the fish plant, Mr. John Hickey, several times. Up to midday Sunday, there was still some smouldering and whatnot going on at the site. It's totally destroyed. The insurance people and fire inspectors have been up to look at it. He's waiting to get the report back from them.

It's a business operated by himself and his three sons. They have been in business for just over 31 years. Last year they bought a new piece of equipment that cost $1 million. It was for scallops, something new for them in the fish plant. Normally, it was just a groundfish facility.

They're devastated by it. They are weighing out the options. Hopefully, they are going to rebuild and start up again. As I said, they have been on the go for 31 years, and they are the only major employer in that area, supporting probably six or seven really small communities. I've told him we'll do anything we can and that everybody is on side to help him out in any way. We look forward to hearing him tell us what is taking place, and hopefully the reconstruction will begin as soon as possible.

Thank you for the question and the concern. I know you phoned me early Friday morning to express your support. I appreciated that very much.

Getting on with the business of today, we're doing our study of Motion No. 154.

We have five witnesses. Four are by video conference and one is by teleconference.

We have Christianne Wilhelmson from the Georgia Strait Alliance; David Bain, chief scientist with Orca Conservancy; Moira Brown, senior scientist with the Canadian Whale Institute; Robert Michaud, scientific director, Group for Research and Education on Marine Mammals; and Lance Barrett-Lennard, director, marine mammal research program at the Coastal Ocean Research Institute.

We'll begin with our witnesses giving their statements. Christianne Wilhelmson, you have seven minutes, please.

11:05 a.m.

Christianne Wilhelmson Executive Director, Georgia Strait Alliance

Thank you very much, Mr. Chair and members of the committee.

My name is Christianne Wilhelmson, and it's my privilege to be speaking to you today from the unceded traditional territories of the Coast Salish people, in particular the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh nations.

I am the executive director of the Georgia Strait Alliance. We are a marine conservation organization in southern British Columbia that for nearly 30 years has been the voice of coastal communities and an advocate for the sustainability of the Georgia Strait and its adjoining waters and communities.

Since the early 2000s, we have been active in advocating for the protection of the endangered southern resident killer whale population and asking for immediate action to protect the species. Personally, I've been an advocate for this species for over 16 years, building on my education. I have a bachelor of arts in English history and political science, a bachelor of science in biology and environmental and resource sciences, and a master's degree in ecology.

I want to acknowledge that Motion No. 154 was drafted some time ago, and the situation for orcas has deteriorated since then and become much more urgent. Simply put, we do not need more information to identify immediate actions to mitigate current threats to the whales. Working with leading scientists, in January 2018 we presented a short list of immediate actions that the government needed to take to reduce threats to southern resident orcas. I'll speak to the status of those requests in a few moments.

The key point of my presentation is simple. We have a species in crisis, and immediate and bold action needs to be taken to save it.

Southern resident orcas, as I'm sure you know by now and you've heard from people, are genetically unique populations of salmon-eating whales. They eat primarily chinook salmon, and they spend their summer months in the Salish Sea area, which includes the Georgia Strait. These are are the waters between Vancouver and Vancouver Island.

In 2003, the population was listed as endangered under Canada's new Species at Risk Act, with three threats identified: toxic contamination, noise and disturbance, and availability of prey. These threats were exacerbated by a unique experience to this population, which occurred between 1962 and 1974, namely live captures. Some 47 orcas were taken from this population during that period, which was a hit to a population greater than any other in this region.

In May 2018, the current government concluded that these whales were under imminent threat, and that since the threats have not abated and were likely increasing since they were declared endangered in 2003, intervention was necessary for the survival and recovery of the species. I should note that since 2003, the population has declined from 83 to 74.

Our concern for the species isn't just based on numbers. That's an oversimplification. There have been no births resulting in surviving calves in nearly three years. There is currently a 69% failed pregnancy rate. There are only 23 reproductive females, and most pregnancies are the results of mating with only one male in the population.

Another noted behavioural change for the species is frequency of visits to the Salish Sea. In 2017, southern residents were seen a total of 27 days, when their normal seasonal average is 150 days. In May 2018, they were not seen in this region for the first time in the period that we have recorded their presence.

Changes in population number, composition and behaviour are the telltale signs that we have an urgent situation requiring bold action.

I have a few more pieces of information. This past season, whales were showing signs of nutritional stress, and that's science-speak for starvation. Based on the limited information we have about this year's chinook run, it has been far below historic averages.

What have we done to change things for the whales? The answer, simply, is not nearly enough. As mentioned, in January several conservation organizations, including GSA, provided the government with a list of urgent actions. I should note that though toxic contamination is one of the threats to the whales, I won't be speaking to that, because in our request in January we did not list anything because pollution issues require a lot more long-term planning around stormwater, wastewater and management of chemicals.

Since January, what measures have been implemented? We now have a 200-metre distance that vessels need to stay away from the whales, and we've had a partial commercial and recreational fishery closure.

I want to give you a partial list of the things the government could be doing but hasn't done since we gave them this information in January: implementation of rebuilding plans for the chinook, prohibition of commercial and private whale-watching in feeding refuges, measures to limit vessel time in proximity to whales, designation of enforcement officers to patrol critical habitat, establishment of a licensing system for commercial whale-watchers, mandate no net increase in overall noise levels relative to 2016 levels, and begin developing noise reduction targets.

One other action we requested of the government in January, which I think really highlights the fact that we're losing time here, is around the addition of critical habitat for orca protection. The area under consideration to be added is on the west coast of Vancouver Island. It was identified in early 2017. With an emergency order, which is the tool we have told government it can use to speed things up, you could declare this additional area as critical habitat today. Instead, we now find ourselves in another consultation period. Nearly two years after the critical habitat was identified, nothing has changed for the orcas. This area is still no further protected than it was two years ago.

Since 2017, the population has declined from 77 to 74 whales. You can see that as we do less or do nothing at all, we're losing the whales. Today we are left knowing that without immediate actions as laid out before the government 10 months ago, the waters of the Salish Sea will not be any quieter in May when the whales return. The whales will continue to experience disturbance. The whales' access to food will continue to be limited without more extensive fishery closures, including Juan de Fuca areas 20-1 and 121-1, if not a full closure. If a full closure of chinook is considered, we also have to commit to supporting coastal communities that will be impacted by this decision. They should not bear the brunt of decades of ineffective management of our salmon in British Columbia rivers and oceans.

As a scientist and an advocate for these waters where three million British Columbians live, work and play, I can state unequivocally that the loss of this species will have ramifications for everyone. It will impact the region economically, with the loss of industries reliant on the orca. It will have social and cultural impacts on coastal communities and first nations. It will have ecological impacts that none of us can imagine. The loss of an apex predator is a house of cards that we don't want to experience.

The science is clear. As I have just explained, the path to saving these whales is laid out; we simply have to decide to act today. Thank you for your time.

11:10 a.m.

Mr. Ken McDonald (Avalon, Lib.)

The Chair

Thank you, Ms. Wilhelmson.

Now we'll go to Mr. David Bain from the Orca Conservancy. Witnesses, when we get close to the end, maybe to the two-minute mark, I'll hold up two fingers to give an indication that you have about two minutes left. Thank you.

Go ahead when you're ready.

11:10 a.m.

David Bain Chief Scientist, Orca Conservancy

Thank you.

Southern residents have been separate from other killer whales since the ice age. They're genetically and culturally distinct. They share their diet with other residents, the northern residents, but they differ in diet from the transients and offshore killer whales with which they share their habitat.

They once numbered between 1,000 and 2,000 individuals, but only 74 remain, and there has only been successful reproduction in two of the last seven years.

While they range from southeast Alaska to central California, they are most often observed in the Salish Sea. There are many causes of the decline. Prey availability is one of them. Chinook are their primary prey, but they also rely heavily on chum salmon and on coho. They use bottom fish when salmon are not available.

To help with the prey problem, we need to address habitat. Repairing habitat is important to spawning and rearing juvenile salmon. The vegetation around streams and how we manage water flows in streams are important to salmon survival.

Near-shore habitats are also important to juvenile salmon, and protecting them from construction and development—docks and things like that—is also quite important.

Invasive species pose a risk. They can restructure ecosystems, reducing their productivity and reducing the food available to the whales.

Barriers to migration are another significant problem. Dams, culverts and in some cases thickets of invasive plants can block migration. They can also make salmon more vulnerable to predation as they try to navigate blockages in their migration routes.

Hatcheries are a double-edged sword for killer whales. Ideally, they would serve as lifeboats where depleted runs could be supported, and then the hatchery could be phased out once wild runs were restored. However, they have become long-term sources of fish for humans, and as a result, the focus has been on numbers rather than body size. We've seen a significant decline in the size of chinook salmon as a result of increasing reliance on hatcheries.

While eliminating harvest would help, it would be inadequate to recover the species. What we can do is move the locations where we do harvest by harvesting after the fish have passed through the whales. We would reduce competition with them, and it would also eliminate disturbances that make the few remaining fish harder to find.

Aquaculture has been identified as a source of disease that affects wild salmon. Some aquaculture facilities have used loud sounds as acoustic deterrents, and this has had a negative impact on killer whales.

Killer whales face competition from other predators such as seals and sea lions. This was not a problem in the distant past; however, human modification of the habitat and timing of runs has enabled pinnipeds to be more effective predators than they used to be. Also, the decline of transient killer whales that feed on pinnipeds has made a population boom in pinnipeds possible. While transients are catching up and will eventually put the ecosystem back in balance, it's an issue we need to pay attention to.

We also have upcoming problems. Climate change is going to be a problem. Warming is not good for salmon. The University of Washington anticipates a 40% decline in salmon populations due to warming.

Ocean acidification is another problem we can anticipate. It's likely to wipe out a link in the food chain, and that will also be a problem in the future.

Disturbances from fishing boats, whale-watching boats, shipping, marine energy production, coastal development and military exercises all make it harder for killer whales to find the limited prey that remains.

Toxins are also a problem. Some are chronic, like PCBs. We have hazardous waste sites that need to be cleaned up, we have ongoing problems with toxins in stormwater and wastewater, and we have concerns with agricultural runoff as well. Transportation is the major source of toxins in stormwater.

We also have to worry about acute toxins. Oil spills pose a major threat. We may have lost a few killer whales from the grounding of the New Carissa in Oregon several years ago. We're also all familiar with the Exxon Valdez spill that killed at least 13 killer whales in Prince William Sound and may have been responsible for the deaths of over 30. As we ship other chemicals by sea, we run the risk of spilling those and causing problems as well.

Disease is another problem we need to worry about. The small population that's been in a bottleneck for generations faces loss of resistance to disease with the loss of genetic diversity.

We also need to be concerned about emerging diseases. For example, we had a porpoise die-off in the Salish Sea that was traced to eucalyptus trees introduced from Australia. We also lost quite a few killer whales at the same time, but none of the bodies were recovered. We don't know whether there's actually a link there.

Another concern is a lack of barrier between the human and marine environment. We know that the bacteria in fungi growing in killer whales have developed antibiotic resistance. We found a dozen species of potential pathogens resistant to a total of about a dozen different antibiotics. This lack of barrier between humans or pets and agricultural animals is a concern for the spread of disease from inshore populations to the whales.

Another thing we need to be aware of is incidental takes. It's been a minor problem for killer whales in the past. If someone proposes to introduce a new fishing technology, we need to be careful it will not result in killer whale mortality.

Finally, I'd like to comment on critical habitat.

At present, the whole range of the southern resident killer whale population is inadequate to support the viable population in its current condition. Therefore, the entire range should really be considered critical habitat. We can identify core areas that are more important than others, but a strategy of maintaining ecological function and the quality of critical habitat throughout the range is important. Enhancing the habitat's quality in core areas would be the other step to take.

Thank you.

11:20 a.m.

Mr. Ken McDonald (Avalon, Lib.)

The Chair

Thank you.

Next we'll have Moira Brown, a senior scientist with the Canadian Whale Institute.

October 30th, 2018 / 11:20 a.m.

Dr. Moira Brown Senior Scientist, Canadian Whale Institute

Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

Good afternoon, and thank you for the invitation to present before this committee.

My name is Dr. Moira Brown. I'm with the Canadian Whale Institute, and I am speaking to you today on behalf of North Atlantic right whales, which have been studied for almost 40 years, and on behalf of the Campobello Whale Rescue Team that responds to entanglements of whales in the Maritimes.

North Atlantic right whales are a transboundary species ranging from the southeast coast of Florida to the Gulf of St. Lawrence. They can be individually identified from photographs of their unique markings, and an identification catalogue is maintained at the New England Aquarium in Boston, Massachusetts. The catalogue data allows researchers to document distributions and movements, as well as population status and trends, reproduction, mortality, behaviour, right whale health and human-caused scarring.

Although the population grew at about 2.5% for 20 years, since 2010 the North Atlantic right whale has been in decline. Fewer than 450 remain. The two human-related causes of right whale mortality and serious injury throughout their range are vessel strikes and entanglement in fixed fishing gear.

Starting in 2010, researchers documented a species-wide shift in the spring, summer and autumn distribution away from the protected habitats in the Bay of Fundy and south of Nova Scotia. Survey effort was expanded, and in 2015 researchers found that many right whales were aggregating to feed and socialize in a large unprotected and high-risk region in the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence, an area that had not previously been studied. It is not new for right whales to be seen in the gulf, but prior sightings were confined to coastal areas. What is new since 2015 is the number of right whales seen in the offshore waters in the southern gulf and their residency for eight months, from early May through December.

In addition to the habitat shift, there are several indicators to show that the right whale population is in decline. There are fewer calves being born. On average there were 24 calves a year born in the 2000s. The calving rate decreased by 44% between 2012 and 2017, and there were no calves seen in 2018. The time between calves for adult females is increasing, in particular for those females that have been injured in an entanglement.

Since 2010, there has been a substantial increase in the number, severity and mortality of right whales from entanglements. Entanglement now accounts for 85% of right whale mortality throughout their range.

In 2017, there was a mortality crisis in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, with 12 right whales found dead. Four to five deaths were as a result of a vessel strike, and two were from entanglement. In addition, there were five live entanglements found in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, of which two were disentangled. Canada took immediate crisis management actions.

With respect to vessel strikes, Canadian researchers have worked with representatives of the shipping industry since 2000, and mortalities and serious injury from vessel strikes have been reduced because of vessel routing changes in the Bay of Fundy in 2003 and in Roseway Basin south of Nova Scotia in 2008. These measures were sanctioned by the International Maritime Organization and implemented by Canada, and there have been no subsequent reports of vessel strike mortalities in these two areas.

Following the mortalities from vessel strikes in 2017, the shipping industry quickly initiated a working group that included Canadian right whale scientists. Vessel routing and speed measures were designed specifically to address the situation in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The measures appear to be effective. There were no observed vessel strike mortalities in the gulf in 2018. I would like to emphasize that the shipping industry has clearly demonstrated that they are willing and able to change their operations to reduce the risk of vessel strikes, and vessel captains in compliance with the mitigation measures deserve the credit for protecting right whales.

On entanglement and fixed fishing gear, rope from all parts of the fixed fishing gear industry have been removed from right whales during disentanglement efforts or necropsies, including inshore and offshore gear, small- and large-diameter ropes, trap/pot and gillnet gear, vertical and ground lines, floating and sinking line, and Canadian and U.S. gear. In Canada, there was little overlap in seasonal fisheries with right whales before the whales shifted their distribution into the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

The Canadian fishing industry has accepted responsibility for entanglement of whales in fishing gear. Following the gear entanglement mortalities in 2017, broad sweeping closures and gear modifications were put in place in the gulf. The industry is to be commended for their compliance.

The measures have been somewhat effective in that there were no entanglement mortalities observed. There were, however, three or possibly four new live right whale entanglements, and one whale with severe entanglement injuries was seen in the gulf.

All of these whales were seen in the gulf free of gear and injury earlier in the 2018 season. One right whale shed the gear on its own, one was disentangled in the Bay of Fundy, and the other two are at large.

It was a group of fishermen who formed the Campobello Whale Rescue Team in 2002. There are only two whale rescue teams in Atlantic Canada—one in Newfoundland led by a fisherman, and ours in New Brunswick—that have the expertise to disentangle large whales. Fishery officers provide an important supporting role to the third party teams, but there are large gaps in rapid response capacity, and it will take years to find responders, to train them, and to build the experience necessary to fill these gaps. I will also add that the disentanglement teams would like to be put out of business through the prevention of entanglements.

Fishermen have and continue to have a key role in reporting entangled whales, despite their fear of how it could affect their industry. I would like to emphasize that we will only be able to solve the entanglement problem through partnership with the fishing industry. The fishermen must know their gear, and the testing of any gear modifications is essential for the sustainability of the industry and the safety of fishermen and whales.

In summary, for right whales to make a comeback, there is no magic bullet. We will need to continue, and expand on, the collaborative partnerships so far developed to identify and implement area-specific mitigation measures that will protect right whales and be sustainable, effective and safe for industry. We will need a philosophy that is flexible and nimble, with a steady flow of near-real-time data, to be responsive to changes in right whale distribution and to monitor and adjust mitigation measures so that they are in place when and where they are needed.

Thank you for your attention.

11:25 a.m.

Mr. Ken McDonald (Avalon, Lib.)

The Chair

Thank you, Ms. Brown.

Next we'll go to Robert Michaud, scientific director, Research and Education Group on Marine Mammals.

Go ahead when you're ready, sir.

11:30 a.m.

Robert Michaud Scientific Director, Research and Education group on Marine Mammals

Thank you, Mr. Chair. I will be speaking French. It is a rare privilege for me to be able do so today.

I want to thank the committee members for the invitation.

My name is Robert Michaud and I am the scientific director of a small research group on the shores of the St. Lawrence for the past 35 years. We do research and education, in close cooperation with many colleagues from Fisheries and Oceans Canada and Parks Canada. I have had the privilege of watching the changes in the beluga population in the St. Lawrence for the past 35 years. When we began studying the species, it had just been added to the list of species at risk. The population was considered reduced and isolated, and we still did not understand why it had not recovered even though hunting had stopped.

Thirty-five years later, belugas are still on the species at risk list and a number of threats have been identified. Recently, we have observed that the population has declined by about 1.5% per year, with a spectacular rise in mortality among newborns and perinatal females. We still don't know the reason for this very worrisome trend, despite many years of research collaboration with a still growing number of partners.

I will use these few minutes to issue a reminder. Research and conservation take a lot of time. The federal government's recent heightened interest in three species of cetaceans at risk—killer whales, rights whales and belugas in the St. Lawrence—and its massive injection of funding for these three species was necessary and of course long awaited. Unfortunately, like the invitation to appear before you this morning, this heightened interest and the massive injection of funds have been somewhat rushed. We might even wonder if it has been a bit improvised.

Let me give you a few quick examples. The Oceans Protection Plan provides an unprecedented injection of funding in cetacean research in Canada. We can only applaud it and hope that it will lead to tangible results. On the other hand, this massive cash investment seems to be related to the current government's obvious interest in the increased production and export of hydrocarbons, in part by sea, and its desire to make all this as palatable as possible and to mitigate the potential consequences.

This investment was made quickly, and the funding could have been directed to other things if there had been more long-term planning.

The government recently asked for a scientific review of the effectiveness of measures for the recovery of the three species we are discussing today. This was done very well, quickly, and without much consultation. The speed of the review gave rise to problems, however, especially when the results were to be presented to the stakeholders in the maritime industry, in Quebec at least, because it interrupted the discussions that had been ongoing for five years.

The same can be said of the “Let's Talk Whales” program, an unprecedented initiative to consult Canadians, the recent announcement of a $3-million initiative called “Whale Science for Tomorrow”, and the invitation for scientists to make submissions, which came at the last minute right in the middle of the summer. These are all exceptional opportunities, but they are rushed.

One of the urgent measures needed to help the three species—belugas, killer whales and right whales—would be to create mixed recovery teams, like those of the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada, COSEWIC, that would bring together academics, government researchers and members of NGOs. These people would work together to very closely monitor the implementation of the measures already identified in recovery plans and would provide for greater harmonization of these various efforts.

There are initiatives designed to include the other industry stakeholders that might either compromise the recovery of the whales or come to terms with the measures we are implementing. Those people should be consulted regularly and invited to participate in these initiatives, along the lines of a group in Quebec, the Working Group on Marine Mammal Protection and Shipping in the St. Lawrence Estuary, or G2T3M, which is an exceptional model that has proven effective.

I will use my few remaining minutes to talk about some avenues that should be pursued without delay.

Let me begin with the environmental assessment process. In Quebec, there are several ongoing maritime development projects that could affect the beluga population. These projects are reviewed one by one. If they were all carried out, they would significantly alter the beluga habitat in the St. Lawrence.

Further, the scope of the Species at Risk Act should be clarified, specifically the provisions pertaining to the protection of the essential habitat, which could be a useful and very powerful tool. We must also accelerate the creation of marine protected areas by focusing on those that are still intact and where we could make major gains for the protection of whales and belugas, in the St. Lawrence in particular.

The contaminant monitoring programs that were abolished close to ten years ago should also be reinstated. Tasking academics with monitoring and surveillance is problematic, since their role is to create real science, to publish quickly, and to inspire graduate students to continue working with them. Yet we have a duty to monitor these contaminants, many of which have been in the belugas' environment for 50 or 60 years and continue to harm them.

Finally—and this is a bit out of my area of expertise—, I would like to talk about the dance around contaminants that has been going on for 35 years. Before, it was PCBs, which were banned, but are still present. They were replaced by PBDEs, which were also banned, but are still present. Those in turn were replaced by a series of new contaminants. It is like a cat chasing its tail. The regulations on the production and use of these toxic products need to be modernized, because it is a never-ending story.

In closing, a tremendous amount of work, a lot of research and many measures are still needed, and it is important for us to work together effectively.

Thank you.

11:35 a.m.

Mr. Ken McDonald (Avalon, Lib.)

The Chair

Thank you, Mr. Michaud.

Last, we'll go to Lance Barrett-Lennard, who is joining us by teleconference from the Coastal Ocean Research Institute.

11:35 a.m.

Dr. Lance Barrett-Lennard Director, Marine Mammal Research Program, Coastal Ocean Research Institute

Good morning, Mr. Chair.

I'm a senior research scientist and director of the marine mammal research program at the Coastal Ocean Research Institute, which is part of the Ocean Wise Conservation Association, which also includes the Vancouver Aquarium.

My responsibilities here include leading a 10-person team that conducts studies of marine mammals in the wild. We conduct some pure research projects, particularly in population genetics, but most of our projects have direct conservation implications, and some are essentially research-informed conservation projects.

I myself have conducted 29 seasons of field studies on killer whales in the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian Oceans. I co-chaired the team that drafted the resident killer whale recovery strategy and I served on the team that drafted the action plan for the same species. I also assisted with the drafting of five other marine mammal recovery strategies or management plans.

My team works alongside the institute's ocean pollution research team, which conducts cutting-edge research on persistent organic pollutants in marine mammals and other species, and on microplastics in the marine environment.

I'll confine my comments for the rest of this talk to conservation challenges facing the so-called southern resident killer whale population, a population of whales now very much in the public eye, along with the St. Lawrence belugas and North Atlantic right whales.

In 2014, I teamed up with two colleagues working in the United States for NOAA at the Southwest Fisheries Science Center, Dr. John Durban and Dr. Holly Fearnbach, on a project to assess the nutritional status of northern and southern resident killer whales. This study was motivated by compelling evidence published by Dr. John Ford in 2000 and 2009 that in years of low chinook salmon abundance, the annual mortality of both northern and southern resident killer whales increased substantially. In other words, the whales were up against a food ceiling or, to use a technical term, the carrying capacity of their environment in those poor years.

Since 2015, my team has used a small boat-launched unmanned drone to photograph the southern and northern resident killer whales from the air. This allows us to measure their fatness and shape very accurately, and also to determine whether they're pregnant at a very early stage. Most importantly, the photos allow us to look at changes in the condition of the whales' bodies from year to year and from season to season to assess their physiological responses in relation to fluctuations in their food supply. Their food supply is principally chinook salmon, and it fluctuates substantially from year to year for both natural reasons and anthropogenic reasons.

Our key findings from the photogrammetry study thus far are as follows.

The growth rates of southern resident calves and juveniles are far slower than those of the northern resident killer whales. The southern residents are leaner, on average, than their northern resident counterparts. Bigg's killer whales, which eat marine mammals, are much more robust than the resident killer whales from either population.

Most pregnancies in the southern resident killer whale population do not produce surviving calves. We can see pregnant females very often in the fall. They usually give birth in the winter or early spring, and we've been seeing them show up the following year not pregnant and with no calves.

We've learned that the leanest members of both the southern and the northern resident killer whale populations, on average, are lactating females. It's hard being a mother. Winters are hard. Southern resident killer whales tend to gain weight during the summer months, even in lean salmon years. In other words, the summer season is the most important time of year for the whales.

We haven't done seasonal comparisons of northern resident killer whales, just the southern ones.

All of these findings are consistent with nutritional stress. The southern resident killer whales simply aren't finding enough prey to stay in good condition.

I'll relate some of our other findings. We often see killer whales swinging their heads as they swim in a manner consistent with scanning below using echolocation. This is consistent with other studies. Periodically they dive deep and chase salmon to the surface. They use that surface as a kind of wall, restricting the fishes' escape options until they can catch them. Chases to the surface may take several minutes, and boats coming into proximity during a chase can interrupt it and allow the fish to escape.

Also consistent with other studies, we found that southern resident killer whales have well-defined, preferred foraging hot spots, and they tend to transit between those hot spots fairly quickly. In the northern residents, we found that injuries from vessel interactions, particularly propeller strikes, are more frequent than photos taken from boats would suggest. In other words, the whales are hit by boats more often than we had previously realized.

Our findings would suggest the following relatively simple management actions.

We think that efforts should be redoubled to increase the availability of chinook salmon to southern resident killer whales in the short term, as well as the long term, by closing sport fishing on the whales' foraging hot spots, as was started this year, 2018.

The effect of this is to preserve for the whales the adult fish that have made it through a gauntlet of perils as they approach their spawning rivers and move into the whales' key foraging areas. It's important to understand that the benefit to the whales of fishing restrictions increases with proximity to the whales' foraging areas. A fish that's spared nets 500 kilometres away has a substantial chance of dying before it gets to a place where the southern residents can prey on it; a fish spared off of Victoria is immediately available.

We think that underwater noise, which interferes with the whales' ability to find prey, needs to be reduced. This can be done by promoting quieter ship design and operation. Noise reduction is particularly important in lean salmon years, when the whales must search large volumes of water to find their sparsely distributed prey.

We think we need to increase efforts to reduce the risk of ship strikes. The new marine mammal regulations will help to reduce this risk by sport and whale-watching vessels, but initiatives to support systems to alert operators of large vessels about whales in their vicinity should be supported. In full disclosure, I have to say that my research group at Ocean Wise is in the process of establishing such a system.

Finally, I think it's very clear that we need to redouble efforts to rebuild the chinook salmon stocks in the long term—as well as the short term, of course—through restoration and protection of spawning areas, protection of riparian habitats, and maintaining and protecting the quality and complexity of estuarine and nearshore habitat areas in the salt water. These areas are important for the survival of chinook smolts.

We need to preserve these salmon stocks in the long term also, through the continued careful management of commercial and sport fisheries. It's my belief that the department has made considerable progress in this area in recent years as well.

Thank you very much.

11:40 a.m.

Mr. Ken McDonald (Avalon, Lib.)

The Chair

Thank you, Mr. Barrett-Lennard.

Before we get into the questions, I will remind everyone, if you're asking a question to a specific presenter, to please identify who you're asking it to.

To the presenters on video conference, if the question is not directed to you per se and you have a comment you'd like to make, just wave or put up your hand. We'll make sure that the questioner sees you want to comment on it. They can refer it to you.

To Mr. Barrett-Lennard on teleconference, I'll remind everyone that if you're asking a question to him, please indicate it. He's not here by video conference, but by telephone.

Sir, if you want to wade in on an answer or question at any time, please interrupt at your convenience.

We'll start off now, for seven minutes, with the government side. Go ahead, Mr. Finnigan.

11:45 a.m.


Pat Finnigan Liberal Miramichi—Grand Lake, NB

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

Thank you to all of the witnesses for being here today on this important subject.

I'm from the New Brunswick part of the country. My riding is along the eastern side of the province, in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the Northumberland Strait.

Of course, the topic of whales has been very much talked about in the last couple of years. On that subject, 2017 was very disastrous for the whale population. Our goal, and I guess the goal of everybody, should be to protect that species and other species that are at risk. We saw over 15 whales perish during that summer.

On October 25, 2017, we heard a comment from Kristen Monsell, from the Center for Biological Diversity in the United States, who said that a provision of the U.S. Fishermen's Protection Act allows the White House to ban imports of fish or seafood from a country if that catch is affecting conservation efforts of an endangered species.

As we know, three-quarters of the snow crabs caught in New Brunswick and on the east coast are destined for U.S. markets. With that in mind, our minister decided to take measures. These were not half measures; there really had to be zero tolerance for any more deaths of whales.

Would you say that these measures were appropriate, or overreaching?

I would like comments from Ms. Brown.

Mr. Michaud, feel free to comment as well on the measures that the minister took in 2018.

11:45 a.m.

Senior Scientist, Canadian Whale Institute

Dr. Moira Brown

Thank you, Mr. Finnigan, for your comments.

The measures that were put in place have not yet eliminated entanglement in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. This year a few entanglements of three—possibly four—right whales that had been seen earlier in the season. There were three injury-free whales that were seen later in the season or in the Bay of Fundy with gear.

I know that the fishermen are working hard on trying to develop some alternative technologies to having ropes in the water and are also taking into consideration the possibility of using ropes that break at a weaker strength to give the whales a chance to break free from the gear and swim away without entangling lines. That work is ongoing. It's not going to be solved overnight, but we certainly have made good progress in developing partnerships and projects to start developing alternative gear or alternative ways of fishing to reduce the entanglement. We are in a much better place than we were last year.

11:45 a.m.


Pat Finnigan Liberal Miramichi—Grand Lake, NB

With that, would you say that there is something that we've learned for measures for the 2019 season? For instance, on the territory for the whales, could we shrink that area? With the knowledge that we've been able to acquire, is there anything we could change and modify for the coming season, in your opinion?

11:45 a.m.

Senior Scientist, Canadian Whale Institute

Dr. Moira Brown

The size of the static closure for the snow crab fishery is quite large. The timing of the start of it was actually very close to the first acoustic detection of a right whale on April 28, 2018. The timing of it is consistent with the initial arrival of right whales. I do appreciate that the size is quite large, and I think we were quite successful last summer with aerial surveys that identified the location of the whales and closing grids around where right whales were located.

The distribution in 2018 was different from previous years in that it was much narrower east to west. It was a similar north-south distribution, but it was much narrower, and I can understand that there were some grids in that static closure where no right whales were seen this year.

As we develop more confidence in our acoustic and visual detection and as we learn more about right whales in the gulf, I think it would make sense to work with the industry to be a little more nimble and flexible in figuring out where to close the area where and when it's needed, rather than the huge broad closure. I think we will soon be approaching an ability to do that, but we also have to realize that if the whales do show up, the fishermen will have to move the gear.

11:50 a.m.


Pat Finnigan Liberal Miramichi—Grand Lake, NB

There have been some reports—or people are saying—that the right whales don't usually go into waters shallower than 120 feet, I believe. Would you say that those areas could be off the territories that are not accessible to fishers?

11:50 a.m.

Senior Scientist, Canadian Whale Institute

Dr. Moira Brown

That is a question that's going to be addressed at the Canadian Science Advisory Secretariat at the end of November. We have data in our identification catalogue of right whales in the gulf and also in other areas, and we can compare that to depths, so we can actually attempt to try to answer that question before next season.

11:50 a.m.


Pat Finnigan Liberal Miramichi—Grand Lake, NB

Quickly, how do we compare with the Americans as far as protection measures go?

11:50 a.m.

Senior Scientist, Canadian Whale Institute

Dr. Moira Brown

Well, we've come a heck of a long way. We took the lead, actually, in vessel strike mitigation 15 years ago.

With respect to entanglements, this is not just a right whale problem; it is a global problem for many species. I think the commitment of the fishermen in the gulf is really going to help solve this problem. Rope in the water is a problem, and it's a problem throughout the range of the right whale in Canada and the U.S. For example, in the Bay of Fundy, the lobster fishery doesn't start until the second week in November and the fishermen are limited to about 300 pots, whereas their colleagues in Maine can fish all year and have 800 pots.

It's a little like comparing apples and oranges, but I think we compare quite well.

11:50 a.m.


Pat Finnigan Liberal Miramichi—Grand Lake, NB

Thank you very much.

11:50 a.m.

Mr. Ken McDonald (Avalon, Lib.)

The Chair

Thank you, Mr. Finnigan.

Now we'll go the Conservative side and Mr. Arnold for seven minutes.

11:50 a.m.


Mel Arnold Conservative North Okanagan—Shuswap, BC

Thank you, Mr. Chair, and thank you, witnesses, for making yourselves available for the committee today.

I'd like to start my comments and questions with you, Mr. Bain. You made the statement that aquatic invasive species pose a threat to whale health. Could you expand a little further on that, please?

11:50 a.m.

Chief Scientist, Orca Conservancy

David Bain

So far they haven't been a direct threat to killer whales, but they do modify habitat. There are predatory fish that are introduced into aquatic systems that prey on juvenile salmon. That of course reduces in-river survivorship. We have a problem with green crabs in the state of Washington now that are modifying the near-shore environment, which is critical habitat for salmon.

A lot of these invasive species come through ballast water. They can be attached to hulls of ships. Then there are deliberate introductions because somebody wants an ornamental plant or exotic pet or something like that. Those can carry diseases. Because killer whales have high levels of PCBs, their immune systems are impaired. Because southern residents have been in a genetic bottleneck for a long time, they're losing the genetic diversity that allows the population to survive an introduced disease.