West Coast fishers are furious over what they see as a lack of consultation over a potential critical habitat designation for orcas that they believe could restrict salmon fishing on the West Coast. ( Photo - Shannon Lough / The Northern View)

West Coast leaders fear orca habitat protection could bring fishery closures

Ucluelet demands extension to DFO consultation process

A federal government review of southern resident killer whale habitats has West Coast fishers up in arms over potential fishery closures.

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada has identified Swiftsure and La Perouse Banks as important feeding areas for endangered orca whales, which could lead to those areas being closed to salmon fisheries to protect the whales’ food source.

“It would shut down the fishery. You would have no access. If it was implemented to the fullest, the need to protect the chinook stock for orcas, for instance, it would shut down the chinook fisheries, commercial and recreational. There would be no access to that fish,” Electoral Area C Director Tony Bennett told the Westerly News.

DFO recently wrapped up a 30-day review process where locals had the opportunity to submit input into the potential critical habitat designation’s impacts, but local leaders are frustrated by the timing of the DFO’s review, which expired on July 11.

Courtenay-Alberni MP Gord Johns told the Westerly News on Monday that he expects to meet with Fisheries Minister Dominic LeBlanc via teleconference this week to lobby for an extension to the review.

“I’m anxious to talk to the minister or minister’s staff and relay the concerns that we’ve heard from our local fishers and the need for consultation,” Johns said.

In a letter to LeBlanc on Friday, Johns suggested it was unfair for the government to conduct the consultation period during the West Coast’s busiest fishing months.

“The protection of habitats for this purpose could cause fishing closures and have harsh consequences for local economies,” Johns stated in the letter. “Conducting consultative processes that impact fisheries in the midst of the fishing season is being viewed with suspicion and mistrust that the government either places a low value on input from the stakeholders or has already decided the outcome and is checking boxes on a list of consultation requirements.”

Johns said he plans to urge Leblanc’s ministry to consult with the West Coast in person.

“There is a lot of local knowledge that we can provide and it’s something that’s important when the government is looking at making very important decisions around our community and the sustainability and health of the ecosystem,” he said. “I’m working closely with the stakeholders and the advisory groups and the elected officials. I’m carrying their message…We’re calling on the government to extend the process.”

Ucluelet’s municipal council voted last week to write a letter to DFO demanding a fuller consultation process take place over the winter to allow local stakeholders to participate.

“This is something that’s come up fairly hot and heavy in the last week or so,” said Mayor Dianne St. Jacques.

“It’s kind of crazy. It’s been a very short window where people can respond and, I think, we need to write to DFO and ask that they put off their consultation and run it through from November to May of next year so that everybody gets a good solid chance to participate in these big decisions.”

Coun. Randy Oliwa reprimanded DFO for the timing of the review, which he said has caused confusion among tourists about whether sports fishing is open on the West Coast.

“They [DFO] seem to be blind to the fact that their timing of this survey is absolutely a bitter pill,” he said. “It’s put an additional level of stress on our sports fishing community as well as other industries…It’s just a really poor timing.”

Tofino mayor Josie Osborne said the southern resident killer whale population was estimated to be around 76 in 2017 and steps must be taken to ensure the survival of the species.

“These important feeding areas could become formally identified as critical habitat, which could trigger a series of actions to protect this habitat and the species that depend on it,” she said.

“Obviously this is a really difficult situation, because on one hand, southern resident killer whale population is in critical need of help if it is to survive, and the sacrifices we may be asked to make are also incredibly impactful…Endangered species conservation is fraught with what we often call ‘wicked problems,’ problems that are messy, difficult, and for which solutions are not easy or evident, and that end up greatly impacting one more than others.”

She said she has heard “a very deep fear” from her constituents that the identification will lead to a closure of the sport and commercial salmon fisheries, as it has in other areas that received the critical habitat designation.

“It’s understandable why people are deeply concerned,” she said. “Changes to the fishery affect people’s livelihoods and in many cases there is a lack of trust between fishers and DFO and DFO will need to undertake meaningful consultation with affected parties if any fishery closures are being considered.”

She added some West Coasters might not understand how important the area is for transient and resident killer whale populations because the species is not commonly seen in local waters.

“On social media, I have seen several references to, ‘We hardly ever see resident killer whales here.’ But, as a biologist, I know that when habitat quantity and quality decline, every last piece of critical habitat is important. That means that even if [southern resident killer whales] are not commonly seen, the time they do spend here could be critical to to their ability to survive,” she said.

READ MORE: Salmon populations “drastically declining” around Tofino and Ucluelet

READ MORE: West Coast fishers see empty seas, demand Pacific Salmon Treaty funding

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