VICTORIA -- Canada’s federal government has announced new measures to protect southern resident killer whales that live off B.C.’s coast and around Vancouver Island.

The measures focus on protecting orcas’ prey availability and accessibility, reducing acoustic and physical disturbances and managing contaminants in B.C.’s waters.

To protect whales’ food supplies, the new measures include prohibiting ship access to key Chinook salmon foraging areas. One of the primary areas will be in the Juan de Fuca Strait and around the Southern Gulf Islands. 

Commercial and recreational salmon anglers will be unable to enter these areas for a portion of the year. The federal government says that exact dates will be announced in June.

Meanwhile, all fish harvesters are being asked to voluntarily stop fishing if they are within 1,000 metres of a killer whale in B.C. waters.

Building upon last year’s measures, interim sanctuary zones near Pender Island, Saturna Island and at Swifsure Bank will be expanded by an additional month this year. From June 1 to Nov. 30, 2020, no vessels will be allowed these areas, except for emergencies and Indigenous vessels. 

To reduce physical disturbances, all vessels will be prohibited from travelling within 400 metres of an orca starting June 1. This ban will be in place year-round and extends as far north as Campbell River and Ucluelet. 

If vessels are within 400 metres of a killer whale, engines must be turned to neutral idle. At the same time, ships are asked to turn off fish finders and echo sounders they are not being used.

Lastly, Transport Canada’s new measures include asking vessels to reduce speeds when within 1,000 metres of a whale. Vessels should slow to less than seven knots until they have passed the whale.

“I want to thank coastal communities, First Nations, the whale watching industry, and vessel operators for their ongoing collaboration and commitment to help the recovery of the southern resident killer whale,” said Minister of Transport Marc Garneau in a statement.

The federal government says, moving forward, it will focus on reducing ocean contaminants by broadening regulatory controls, increasing monitoring and research, and expanding outreach and education among sailors.

The ministry says that the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority’s Enhancing Cetacean Habitat and Observation (ECHO) will also be announcing new measures for large commercial vessels within the next several weeks.

“The southern resident killer whale has immense cultural significance for Indigenous peoples and coastal communities, and is a vital part of our sensitive ecosystems in British Columbia,” said Terry Beech, parliamentary secretary to the Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard in a statement.

“By safeguarding their main food source and providing them with more space to move and feed, we are helping ensure that this iconic species will thrive in our waters for years to come.”