Orcas in B.C.’s Queen Charlotte Strait, not far from the Robson Bight. (Photo courtesy Cetus Research)
Interactions between people and whales have occurred in Johnstone Strait for as long as humans have inhabited the region, a period of at least 10,000 years. Local First Nations, tribes of the Kwakwaka’wakw, have a profound kinship with the orca, which is depicted in their artwork, history and stories. This relationship has existed for centuries, and is manifested in the bight by the remains of fish weirs, culturally modified trees and a midden indicating there may have been big houses located at a site on the Tsitika River, which runs through the reserve.
Modern human activities, however, are having an adverse impact on the whales and other marine mammals in the region. The northern residents, for instance, are considered “threatened” under the Species at Risk Act. (Efforts are required to
ensure the northern residents don’t go the way of the endangered southern resident killer whales — who reside in the waters around Victoria — and number just 76.) One of the key reasons for the threatened status is noise from, and obstacles posed by, boats. Increasing marine traffic (including kayaks and recreational and commercial whale-watching vessels) is creating greater disturbance in key habitat.
Many studies (including some conducted at the bight) have shown that close approaches by boats can disrupt whale activities necessary for their survival. Noise from boats has the potential to interfere with the whales’ ability to communicate, and may reduce their ability to coordinate activities. Sound can also impact the echolocation signals or acoustic communications whales use to locate food. Such interference can reduce foraging success, potentially contributing to starvation.
The reserve, designated as critical habitat for the northern residents by Fisheries and Oceans Canada, helps address these threats by providing an area free from boats. Whale watching is prohibited and there is no land access. BC Parks, responsible for the protection of orca habitat in the reserve, works with the Cetus Research & Conservation Society, a non-profit dedicated to protecting marine mammals in the wild, to monitor the reserve.