Frequently Asked Questions - Interim Order Respecting the Protection of Killer Whales (Orcinus orca) in the Waters of Southern British Columbia

Q1: Will the measures in the Interim Order be made permanent?

The measures will be monitored to assess their effectiveness in reducing noise, as well as socio-economic impacts. Future action will be determined in consultation with stakeholders and First Nations, and is in keeping with Transport Canada's ongoing, adaptive management approach.

Q2: Why did the Minister of Transport make this Interim Order? And what is the role of Transport Canada in protecting killer whales?

The Minister of Transport issued the Interim Order because immediate action is required to deal with risks from vessels to the killer whale populations on the West Coast. The main purpose of the order is to put in place immediate measures to reduce underwater vessel noise and physical disturbance from marine traffic for all killer whales, focusing on key foraging areas for Southern Resident killer whales who are listed as endangered under the Species at Risk Act.

Transport Canada is responsible for promoting safe, secure, efficient, and environmentally responsible transportation. The Canada Shipping Act, 2001 (CSA 2001) gives the Minister of Transport the authority to make regulations respecting the protection of the marine environment from the impacts of navigation and shipping activities (s.35.1(1)), as well as the authority to make an interim order if immediate action is required to deal with a direct or indirect risk to the marine environment (s. 10.1(1)), including on a precautionary basis.

Q3: What does the Interim Order do?

The Interim Order sets out three mandatory measures for vessels operating in certain areas of the waters of southern British Columbia to reduce physical and acoustic disturbance to killer whales.

First, the Interim Order prohibits vessels and persons operating and navigating a vessel, subject to exceptions, from approaching any killer whale at a distance of less than 400-metres while in Southern Resident killer whale critical habitat and British Columbia coastal waters between Campbell River (Cape Mudge) and Malaspina Peninsula (Sarah Point) including Howe Sound, to just north of Ucluelet, including Barkley Sound.

Second, the Interim Order creates two Interim Sanctuary Zones, where vessel traffic is prohibited, including fishing or recreational boating, from June 1, 2022, until November 30, 2022, with some exceptions. These two zones are located off the south-west coast of Pender Island and south-east end of Saturna Island.

Third, the Interim Order creates two Seasonal Slowdown Areas, subject to exceptions, implementing a mandatory speed limit of 10 knots over ground in areas around Swiftsure Bank, from June 1, 2022, until November 30, 2022. The first area is located at the Mouth of the Nitinat River, and the second is located at Swiftsure Bank.

Q4: How was the Interim Order developed?

The Interim Order implements enhanced measures announced on April 29, 2022, that build upon earlier and complementary initiatives to support Southern Resident killer whale recovery. The Interim Order has been informed by the significant work of the technical working groups made up of Indigenous representatives, governments, and key scientific and stakeholder advisors, and is designed to directly address key threats to the Southern Resident killer whale population's long-term survival. The Interim Order was developed to help secure the recovery of the Southern Resident killer whales while considering the social and economic interests of Indigenous groups and coastal communities that rely on marine-based industries.

Q5: When will the sanctuaries / approach distance / slowdown measures begin and how long will they be in place?

Interim Sanctuary Zones and Seasonal Slowdown Areas will be in place from June 1, 2022, through November 30, 2022. This period is based on the greater seasonal presence of Southern Resident killer whales in key areas of critical habitat in the Salish Sea The 400-metre approach distance is in place year-round to provide on-going protection for any Southern Residents that are found in coastal British Columbia waters, regardless of the season.  The measures are intended to reduce vessel noise and physical disturbance by increasing the distance between vessels and the whales on an interim basis pending further feasibility assessment work on measures to reduce physical and acoustic disturbances.

Q6: Where does the mandatory 400-metre approach distance to killer whales apply?

Vessels must stay a minimum of 400-metres away from any killer whale in Southern Resident killer whale critical habitat and British Columbia coastal waters between Campbell River (Cape Mudge) and Malaspina Peninsula (Sarah Point) including Howe Sound, to just north of Ucluelet, including Barkley Sound.

The coordinates for the relevant range can be found in Schedule 1 of the Interim Order.

A map of the relevant range can be downloaded here. (*Note: This measure only applies in Canadian waters. Please ensure to check Be Whale Wise for measures in place in both Canadian and U.S. waters).

Q7: How was the geographic area for the 400-metre approach distance to killer whales decided?

The area where the 400-metre approach distance applies is based on the range and critical habitat of Southern Resident killer whales as identified in the SARA Recovery Strategy. 

This builds on existing prohibitions in place through the Marine Mammal Regulations, which require that persons and vessels travelling beyond the range identified in the Interim Order must stay a minimum of 200-metres away from killer whales in Canadian waters off the coast of British Columbia.

Q8: Why was the 400-metre approach distance area extended in 2021 to include the waters of Barkley Sound and Howe Sound?

The area in which the 400-metre approach distance applies was expanded in 2021 to include Howe and Barkley Sounds. The addition of these two sounds ensures greater coverage of waters identified in the SARA Recovery Strategy as part of Southern Resident killer whale range, particularly as whales have become less predictable in recent years. The addition of these waters also facilitates communication and awareness of this mandatory measure.

Q9: Where are the Interim Sanctuary Zones located?

They are located:

  • off the south-west coast of North Pender Island, and
  • off the eastern tip of Saturna Island.

The coordinates can be found in Schedule 2 of the Interim Order.

Maps of the zones can be downloaded here: Gulf Islands.

Q10: Do the 400-metre approach distance and Interim Sanctuary Zones apply to paddling and other non-motorized activities?

Yes, the 400-metre approach distance and Interim Sanctuary Zones apply to paddling and other non-motorized activities however, human powered vessels have been provided with a 20-metre transit corridor along the shores of the Pender and Saturna Island Interim Sanctuary Zones.

Q11: Why do the 400-metre approach distance and Interim Sanctuary Zones apply to paddling and other non-motorized activities?

The Interim Order was issued to protect killer whales from both underwater noise and physical disturbance. For human-powered vessels such as canoes or kayaks, concerns include risks related to whales coming too close to a vessel, or vessels or persons making noise that can disturb, stress, or prevent whales from feeding or communicating with each other.

In recognition that the size of the Interim Sanctuary Zones can result in unsafe conditions for human powered vessels, a 20-metre transit corridor along the shore of the Pender and Saturna Island Interim Sanctuary Zones has been established to allow paddlers to safely transit the prohibited zone.

Q12: Where are the Seasonal Slowdown Areas located?

The Seasonal Slowdown Areas are located near Swiftsure Bank. One area includes the former 2021 Swiftsure Bank Interim Sanctuary Zone and extends eastward into Pacific Fisheries Management Area 121-1 and southward to border the Traffic Separation Scheme. The second area is from Carmanah Point to Latitude 125.

The coordinates can be found in Schedule 3 of the Interim Order. Maps of the areas can be downloaded here: Seasonal Slowdown Areas.

Q13: Why are major shipping lanes excluded from the Seasonal Slowdown Areas?

The international shipping lanes that transit the waters through the Salish Sea are established under international law and vessels are required to follow them to ensure safe and secure navigation. Transport Canada cannot unilaterally prohibit vessels from using the Traffic Separation Scheme. This is why we work in close collaboration with the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority's Enhanced Cetacean Habitat and Observation (ECHO) Program to identify and implement voluntary measures for large commercial vessels to reduce the acoustic and physical disturbance in important sections of the Traffic Separation Scheme. High continued participation rates are reported for Haro Strait, Boundary Pass, Strait of Juan de Fuca, and Swiftsure Bank which have resulted in considerable decreases in underwater noise.

The protection and recovery of the Southern Resident killer whales requires different but significant contributions from all stakeholder groups and communities around the Salish Sea.  

Q14: What is the speed limit within the Seasonal Slowdown Areas?

Vessels are allowed to transit through these areas but are required to transit at no more than 10 knots speed over ground (some exceptions apply, see below). The speed limit of 10 knots has been determined to be safe for this area. As speed reductions are a proven approach to reducing disturbance, this proposed pilot approach will reduce disturbance in key foraging areas of the Southern Resident killer whale, while ensuring risks are not increased in adjacent areas.

Q15: How and why were the Seasonal Slowdown Areas developed?

The pilot approach at Swiftsure Bank to replace to the previous Interim Sanctuary Zone with two Seasonal Slowdown Areas was co-developed by Transport Canada and Pacheedaht First Nation. Results of a peer-reviewed study led by Fisheries and Oceans Canada on Southern Resident killer whale behaviour and distribution, and vessel presence in the Salish Sea released in 2021 were instrumental in determining the placement of the Seasonal Slowdown Areas. The Seasonal Slowdown Areas are being implemented in previously unprotected key Southern Resident killer whale foraging areas. A one-year pilot approach will allow for the collection of data to determine if this is an appropriate medium-term measure for the Swiftsure Bank area and/or other important areas for Southern Residents.

Q16: Who is excepted from the 400-metre approach distance measure?

The following vessels and persons are excepted from the 400-metre approach distance measure within the relevant range:

  • vessels in transit (aka any vessel travelling directly from one point in the water to another);
  • vessels in distress or providing assistance to a vessel or person in distress;
  • vessels involved in pollution response operations;
  • vessels avoiding immediate or unforeseen danger;
  • employees of the Government who are performing their duties, or a person assisting them or otherwise present at the request of the Government of Canada;
  • persons undertaking certain activities, including scientific research, as authorized under the Species at Risk Act, Marine Mammal Regulations, or Fishery (General) Regulations; and
  • any vessel with these people on board.

Commercial whale watching and ecotourism businesses may apply for a special authorization to operate a vessel up to 200-metres to watch non-Southern Resident killer whales.

Q17: Who is excepted from the Interim Sanctuary Zones measure?

The Interim Order provides a number of exceptions from the prohibition of traveling within an Interim Sanctuary Zone.

Specifically, the following vessels and persons are excepted:

  • local traffic that needs to access a residence, commercial establishment or any other establishment providing a service on North Pender or southeast Saturna Islands, or a mooring buoy within the sanctuary, if travel by water within an Interim Sanctuary Zone is the only practical means of doing so. For example, if you need to access a residence, business or service that is not accessible by road, you would generally be permitted to travel through the area to reach it;
  • vessels in distress or providing assistance to a vessel or person in distress;
  • vessels involved in pollution response operations;
  • vessels avoiding immediate or unforeseen danger;
  • employees of the Government who are performing their duties, or a person assisting them or otherwise present at the request of the Government of Canada;
  • persons undertaking certain activities, including scientific research, as authorized under either the Species at Risk Act, Marine Mammal Regulations, or Fishery (General) Regulations;
  • persons fishing for food, social or ceremonial purposes or for domestic purposes pursuant to a treaty within the meaning of section 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982, in accordance with a licence issued under the Aboriginal Communal Fishing Licence Regulations; and
  • Indigenous persons exercising an existing right for non-commercial purposes, other than fishing, under section 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982.

Q18: What are the exceptions to the Seasonal Slowdown Areas?

The Interim Order provides for exceptions for the following persons and vessels:

  • employees of the Government of Canada who are performing their duties, or a person assisting them or otherwise present at the request of the Government of Canada;
  • vessels in distress or providing assistance to a person or vessel in distress;
  • vessels involved in pollution response operations;
  • vessels avoiding immediate or unforeseen danger;
  • vessels not operating a motor.

Q19: What constitutes an immediate or unforeseen danger?

An immediate or unforeseen danger includes any situation in which weather, mechanical issues or collision risks require the vessel to ignore a provision of the Interim Order because that is the safest route or the quickest path to safety.

Q20: What is the penalty for vessel operators who do not obey the mandatory sanctuaries / slowdowns / approach distances?

The enforcement regime under the Canada Shipping Act, 2001 (CSA 2001) applies to violations of the Interim Order. This means that any person or vessel that does not comply with the Interim Order may be subject to an administrative monetary penalty of up to $250,000, or a fine of up to $1 million and/or imprisonment up to a maximum of 18 months upon summary conviction.

Q21: Why is Transport Canada providing commercial whale watching businesses authorizations to approach non-Southern Resident killer whales up to 200-metres?

The primary objective of the 400-metre approach distance is to reduce the risk to the Southern Resident killer whales, who face imminent threats to their survival and recovery. The average boater does not have the ability to tell the difference between Southern Resident killer whales and other killer whales, so must stay at least 400-metres away from all killer whales to be certain of not approaching Southern Residents. Commercial whale watching companies employ trained naturalists with expertise in identifying different types of killer whales including knowledge of their social structure, behaviour and appearance. These companies are therefore eligible to apply for an authorization to approach non-Southern Residents up to 200-metres, which is consistent with existing requirements in the Marine Mammal Regulations. In order to receive this authorization, they must enter an Agreement with the Minister of Transport that commits them to not intentionally offer, plan or promote excursions based on viewing of Southern Resident killer whales.

Q22: Why is Transport Canada providing Straitwatch and Soundwatch authorizations to approach non-Southern Resident killer whales up to 200-metres?

Straitwatch and Soundwatch are organizations recognized by the Government of Canada for their work on the water to monitor vessel impacts on whales and educate boaters and mariners on best practices around whales. This will include educating boaters on the water about the mandatory 400-metre approach distance, the Interim Sanctuary Zones, and the Seasonal Slowdown Areas.

Q23: I am a commercial whale watching operator, how do I apply for the authorization?

Commercial whale watching or eco-tourism businesses, including those owned or operated by Indigenous peoples, that offer whale watching tours and travel within Southern Resident killer whale relevant range are eligible to apply for an authorization to view non-Southern Resident killer whales up to 200-metres. This authorization includes an agreement on behalf of the operator to take specific actions to reduce impacts of their operations on Southern Residents.

If you would like to apply for an authorization, or have additional questions, please contact: TC.QuietShips-Naviressilencieux.TC@tc.gc.ca

Approved applicants will receive an authorization letter that is required to be produced for enforcement purposes.