Chinook salmon are a key part of the diet of endangered southern resident killer whales. (Michael Humling/U.S. Fish Wildlife Service photo)

Federal project to boost Chinook salmon population in Fraser River delta

$2 million to restore salmon habitat will help feed endangered southern resident killer whales

The federal government has launched a new $2-million project to restore marine habitat in the Fraser River estuary in the hopes of boosting the survival numbers of chinook and other Pacific salmon, which are a crucial part of the diet of the endangered southern resident killer whales.

Over the next four years, Ducks Unlimited Canada and the Raincoast Conservation Foundation will look into ways to control invasive plants which have a negative impact on fish habitat in the Fraser estuary, as well as undertake upgrades to the dikes on Gunn and Rose Kirkland Islands. The two conservation groups will also reconnect marshlands cut off by dikes with the rest of the Fraser’s southern arm.

Announcing the project late last December, Delta MP Carla Qualtrough said the aim of the fund is to preserve, protect and restore chinook salmon habitat in the Fraser River delta.

“This project will improve fish access to tidal marsh habitat in the Fraser River South Arm by modifying existing jetties and flood control infrastructure,” Qualtrough said.

“It will also help improve the early marine survival of juvenile chinook salmon and contribute to the rebuilding of salmon populations from across the Fraser watershed.”

RELATED: ‘Good turnout’ for returning North Delta spawners

She said the increase of salmon as a result of revamping the water control structures will also have a positive effect on British Columbia’s southern resident killer whale population. The orcas were designated as endangered in Canada in 2001 and in the U.S. in 2005, and their well-being is closely tied to the overall health of the ecosystem, according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency.

“One of the many reasons why this work is so important is because chinook salmon is a key food source for southern resident killer whales, which are struggling to find enough prey to eat,” Qualtrough added.

“I’m confident that this habitat restoration project will help improve the amount of chinook and chum salmon in the southern resident’s adjacent coastal foraging areas and contribute to their long-term recovery.”

Earlier this week, the Center for Whale Research showed that J17, the matriarch of the J-pod swimming just off the shores of B.C. and Washington state, has a so-called “peanut head,” which the centre says is a sign of poor health and malnutrition. A male orca, known as K25, is also in as poor health, and both he and J17 are expected to die by this summer, according to Ken Balcomb, a researcher with the centre. Those deaths would cut the southern resident killer whale population down to 72.

READ MORE: More Puget Sound orcas predicted to die by summer

SEE ALSO: Habitat protection widened for endangered killer whales off Vancouver Island

The Coastal Restoration Fund, at a total of $75 million, is part of Ottawa’s $1.5 billion Oceans Protection Plan launched in November 2016 that aims to protect marine life and habitat along Canada’s coasts.

— with files from The Associated Press

RELATED: Trudeau announces $1.5 billion ocean protection plan

SEE ALSO: Trudeau announces bioregional oceans protection agreement in Prince Rupert

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