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Plan to expand killer whale foraging areas could be 'devastating' for Port Renfrew

The town on the southwest tip of Vancouver Island is heavily reliant on anglers who flock to the area in the spring and summer to catch the premium sports fish

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans’ proposal to expand foraging zones for southern resident killer whales and close more areas to the chinook salmon fishery could have a “devastating” impact on Port Renfrew.

The town on the southwest tip of Vancouver Island is heavily reliant on anglers who flock to the area in the summer and early fall to catch the premium sports fish, known for its meat and vigorous fight.

The problem is, the endangered killer whales, just 75 animals, rely on chinook as their main food source, prompting the DFO proposal to expand existing foraging zones in place since 2019 on Swiftsure Bank in the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The expanded closures could potentially reach right up to shorelines surrounding Port Renfrew, where most small-boat anglers and charter companies fish from April to October.

The Swiftsure Bank encompasses an area extending south of Port Renfrew to past Bonilla Point Lighthouse.

“This basically closes [Port Renfrew’s] fishery … it could be devastating,” said Chris Bos, president of the South Vancouver Island Anglers Coalition. “Port Renfrew is known as a fishing destination, but if you can’t catch and keep a chinook there, people will go elsewhere.”

About 300 people met at a Langford hotel this week to discuss DFO’s proposed plan. The gathering included lodge and store owners and charter companies from Port Renfrew, as well as guides and anglers from Victoria, Sooke and beyond.

Federal Fisheries Minister Diane Lebouthillier is expected to make a decision on the expanded closures for 2024-25 in the coming weeks after a month-long public engagement that ended Feb. 12.

The DFO is revisiting its management measures within the southern resident killer whale critical habitat and a subset of their range. That includes key areas Juan de Fuca Strait, Swiftsure Bank, the Gulf Islands and the mouth of the Fraser River.

Chris Tucker, president of the Port Renfrew Chamber of Commerce, said the new restrictions have sparked profound concerns in the community.

Tucker said the prospect of closing the recreational fishery poses an imminent threat to the town’s economy, endangering numerous livelihoods dependent on the fishing industry.

“Many businesses in the community have already taken deposits for 2024, to facilitate fishing charters, and accommodations bookings for this year’s fishing season,” said Tucker. “The fact that we are even engaging in a discussion that has the potential to close another major area of our fishing grounds is creating great harm to this community.”

Port Renfrew has a year-round population of about 500, including members of the Pacheedaht First Nation. Tucker said the vitality of the town hinges on businesses like gas stations, stores, hotels and cabins that cater to fishing during the season.

A recent Chamber survey of lodgers, restaurants and fishing charters showed the fishing industry generates $158,000 per day or about $26 million over a 165-day fishing season, Tucker said. That includes money spent on fishing charters, fish processing, accommodations, restaurant meals, gas, groceries and supplies, as well as those who bring their own boats and take advantage of services.

Tucker said proposed DFO closures could have a longer-term effect, with businesses closing or moving elsewhere.

He said closures implemented for small recreational vessels have had little effect in safeguarding the southern resident killer whales, while affecting the economies of small communities like Port Renfrew.

There is a notable absence of new data to support the proposed expansion of closure areas beyond current measures. Tucker said.

“Predictive modeling typically serves as a recourse when data is lacking; however, in this instance, decades of studies have meticulously tracked the movements of these whales, often on a daily basis,” said Tucker. “The insistence on relying solely on predictive modeling appears suspect.”

Tucker said DFO should instead be expanding “mobile avoidance zones” around southern resident killer whales during their occasional presence in the Juan de Fuca Strait.

“This approach mirrors that of our neighbours in Washington state, where these avoidance zones have been found to be more effective and aligned with the data collected over the same period on the very same whales in question.”

Tucker said the recreational fishery has little impact overall on chinook stocks, citing reports that if the fishery were to cease, it would yield an increase of less than 1% in chinook abundance.

He noted in a letter to the fisheries minister that recent chinook stock assessments reveal robust populations.

Data from 2023 show Fraser summer chinook at 627,000 (exceeding the DFO target of 120,300 by more than five-fold), Lower Fraser fall run chinook at 150,000 (nearly double the DFO target), and Cowichan River chinook at 21,000 (more than three times the DFO target).

Fishing groups said DFO should be addressing environmental factors directly affecting southern resident killer whales, such as pollutants and population growth of pinnipeds like seals, and the massive freighters going through the Strait of Juan de Fuca to the Port of Vancouver.

DFO said management measures are intended to address key threats to the recovery of the southern resident killer whales related to reduced availability of food and increased noise and disturbance in their habitat.

The measures not only include area-based fishing closures, but also vessel-approach distances, sanctuary areas and speed restricted zones.

DFO said measures are informed by the best available information and science as well as advice from Indigenous groups, technical working groups, stakeholders and the public.

dkloster@timescolonist.com

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