Canada, U.S. release new Salish Sea cooperation action plan as southern resident killer whale population nears record low

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The Canadian and U.S. governments have signed a new four-year action plan to work together on transboundary issues and challenges facing the Salish Sea ecosystem. 

The plan prioritizes information sharing on environmental impact assessments, as well as supporting local, state/provincial, First Nation transboundary coordination and information-sharing.

“Collaboration and partnerships are key to addressing the challenges facing the transboundary Salish Sea ecosystem. The government of Canada is committed to continue working together with our partners to achieve our collective goals,” said Jonathan Wilkinson, Canadian minister of environment and climate change. 

“Sustainable stewardship of the ecosystem is critical to the economic and overall well-being of a growing population in the region.”

The plan is part of the two countries’ Joint Statement of Cooperation, first signed in 2000, and reinforces the commitment to work with partners, including B.C., Washington state, Indigenous peoples, local governments, universities and stakeholders.

Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) also updated their joint Health of the Salish Sea Ecosystem Report analyzing 10 indicators of the health of the Salish Sea. It draws from publicly available monitoring, research and other information gathered between 2017 and 2020.

The report found the southern resident killer whale population continues to decline — as of December 2020, a 40-year low of 74 individuals was recorded. Acoustic stressors, vessel impacts, exposure to contaminants and the consistently low availability of chinook salmon all contribute to the population’s declining numbers.

“This is more than a 25 per cent decline from the observed peak population size in 1995,” reads the report. “This population is facing increasing threats to its recovery and even survival.”

Chinook salmon, the primary food source for the southern resident killer whales, also continue to struggle, according to the report. It said the past few years saw a particularly notable decrease in fish returning to spawn and an increase in fish being caught.

Of the 10 indicators of environmental health, five are on a negative trend, including the killer whale and chinook salmon populations, in addition to overall marine species at risk populations, marine water quality and stream flow.

“Without stronger efforts to protect and improve water quality and habitats and to conserve broader food-webs, the number and populations of local species may continue to decline,” the report reads.

Air quality, toxics in the food web, freshwater quality and quality of swimming beaches were considered neutral in the report. The only indicator on a positive trend is shellfish harvesting, the report found.

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