Vancouver launches whale protection program for seventh year

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by Emily Atkins

The Vancouver Fraser Port Authority has launched the seventh season of its  Enhancing Cetacean Habitat and Observation (ECHO) Program.

A large male orca (killer whale) breaches in Vancouver Harbor

The large-scale threat reduction measures support the recovery of at-risk whales, such as the endangered southern resident killer whales.

To reduce threats to whales such as underwater noise and ship strikes, more than 60 marine transportation organizations have confirmed their intention to participate in the ECHO Program’s measures, which ask ship operators to slow down or stay distanced within key areas of importance to southern resident killer whales.

Last year, the ECHO Program’s voluntary measures reduced underwater noise—one of the key threats to southern resident killer whales—by nearly 50 percent in the slowdown areas. Additionally, a new study shows that the program’s slowdowns can also reduce the risk of ship strikes by up to nearly a third (27 percent) and can reduce air emissions within the slowdown areas.

“This new research shows that slowing ships down can not only create a quieter underwater environment for southern resident killer whales to hunt their prey, it can also help reduce emissions from ships and lower the risk of whale strikes within the slowdown areas,” said Carrie Brown, director of ecosystem management and environmental programs at the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority.

In total, the program’s voluntary measures span across nearly 80 nautical miles of both Canadian and U.S. waters and cover nearly 50 percent of all southern resident killer whale critical habitat that overlaps with international shipping lines, in key areas such as Swiftsure Bank, Haro Strait, Boundary Pass, and the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

Last year, thanks to the support of partners and advisors, the ECHO Program saw all-time-high participation rates in its voluntary measures, with ship operators on 86 percent of all large commercial ship transits reducing their speed or increasing their distance within key areas of southern resident killer whale critical habitat.

“The ECHO Program’s strong results demonstrate the effectiveness of collaborative efforts at addressing threats to endangered species in our region,” said Duncan Wilson, vice-president, environment and external affairs at the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority.

“We thank the ECHO Program’s many partners and advisors from across government agencies, the marine transportation industry, environmental groups, and Indigenous communities, for their continued support of this important effort to protect at-risk whales.”

Launched by the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority in 2014, the ECHO Program is one of the ways the port authority is working to enable Canada’s trade through the Port of Vancouver within a context of strong environmental protection. Since 2017, the ECHO Program has implemented large-scale threat reduction measures to reduce the effects of commercial shipping on at-risk whales, in close collaboration with partners and advisors across the region.