Indigenous Guardians scout vast seas to give Orcas a fighting chance.

Southern Resident Killer Whales (SRKW) have helped structure the marine ecosystem along the coast from California to Alaska for decades, being integral to both ocean health and Indigenous culture in British Columbia.

However, their population has been fast declining since the late ‘90s, as a shrinking salmon population, multiplying shipping traffic and ambient underwater noise pollution in recent years has threatened their survival. These marine species now have only 75 members.

As Southern Resident Killer Whale numbers decline, Marine Guardians look to data and research for solutions | From NOAA Photo Library

But all hope is not lost yet.

The W̱SÁNEĆ First Nation, which is spread across B.C.’s Saanich Peninsula, Gulf Islands and all the way to the San Juan Islands, have initiated projects including QENTOL, YEN or W̱SÁNEĆ Marine Guardians to better understand, and find solutions to, the threats faced by their “relatives from the deep.”

“We are First Nations people who are one of the original Guardians of the land and waters around here since time immemorial,” says David Dick, senior manager of QENTOL, YEN’s SRKW monitoring program. “We have ongoing projects in four different areas and it all comes back to the Southern Resident Killer Whales.”

A multi-pronged approach to marine conservation

First Nation communities have been monitoring and protecting the Salish Seas since time immemorial. QENTOL, YEN’s mission is to restore their deep-rooted connection with the SRKW pods, or KELŁOLEMEĆEN, here. The first step in this mission is data collection, a process which allows for three key types of monitoring work that QENTOL, YEN conducts.

The first of those is habitat monitoring.

SRKW’s preferred food is Chinook Salmon. So, as part of the habitat monitoring process, QENTOL, YEN has been monitoring the population, health and environment of the salmon in the Goldstream River, one of the three main salmon streams around Vancouver.

The team has been using drones to record the physical changes in Goldstream and conducting stream walks to check the water quality and track the dead salmon. They also assist in egg counting and debris removal activities at the Goldstream hatchery.

Dick believes this data will provide a clearer understanding of access to present and future prey for not just Killer Whales but also other marine species and communities that rely on the salmon.

The QENTOL, YEN marine guardian organization is teaming up with researchers to track, monitor, and protect the endangered Southern Resident Killer Whales (KELŁOLEMEĆEN) in the Salish Sea. | Photo credit: QENTOL, YEN

“Goldstream… is a major source for the W̱SÁNEĆ people and other First Nations around the area, who would go and harvest salmon in the area,” says Dick.

QENTOL, YEN also conducts baseline monitoring, where the marine guardians take their 33-ft landing craft, adorned with images of three graceful SRKWs, and document every marine mammal and their habitat in the Saanich inlet and the waters surrounding the North Pender Island and Saturna Island.

For Dick, this process helps the team get a better geographical picture of how multiple species are relying on the same food source in a given area.

“I often wondered why the seals and sea lions were hanging out on the Belcher Islands… or out over on East Point or… at the entrance of Goldstream,” says Dick. “And so I started thinking… let’s start monitoring where the seals and sea lions and any other sea mammals are hibernating throughout the year.”

Lastly,  QENTOL, YEN’s compliance monitoring project tracks other disturbances regularly faced by killer whales.

Ship strikes have been a leading cause of SRKW deaths over the years. According to Dick, the Robert Banks Terminal Expansion and TMX expansion will increase the shipping traffic around the Gulf Islands, bringing in larger tankers. Dick says these vessels will not just threaten the orcas in their paths, but also produce higher ambient noise that will disturb the cetaceans.

QENTOL, YEN’s compliance monitoring project includes a collaborative effort with Simon Fraser University, which monitors the speeds of the large vessels that transmit through Boundary Pass and Haro Strait, and measures the noise produced by using hydrophones—underwater devices that detect and record ocean sounds. 

The Marine Guardians set up a similar hydrophone system along the coast of Rum Island in collaboration with and are already studying the underwater vocalization data.

These tools, Dick believes, will equip them to ask the government to close off certain areas for the SRKWs to rest. 

“They need their rest, they need their peace and quiet like all of us. We all have our little rooms that we’d like to go to have our peace and quiet,” says Dick. “Why can’t our KELŁOLEMEĆEN have the same thing away from these vessels?” 

A cultural preservation effort

For Dick and the QENTOL, YEN team, the effort to protect the southern resident killer whale population is as much a cultural preservation effort as an environmental one.

In fact, Dick attributes the start of this guardians program to a quote by Tsartlip First Nation Elder Tom Sampson at the Canada’s Energy Board hearing in 2018, wherein the elder spoke of how the whale is not just a whale, but a mother, child, and relative. He spoke about the community’s deep relationship with the oceans and the land.

“I came across this quote… and it moved me in a direction where I wanted to be working with our people. And then to have an opportunity to start a guardians program,” Dick says. 

And so, while the monitoring and protection of the Southern Resident Killer Whales is the ultimate goal for QENTOL, YEN, their mission is to restore the relationship between the W̱SÁNEĆ Nation and the KELŁOLEMEĆEN. And this mission is carried forward in the cultural component of the program.

As part of this component, the team has organized various cultural and educational workshops on the relationship between the community, the salmon and the southern resident killer whales. The cultural workshops also include activities like herring harvesting and an annual salmon ceremony at Goldstream, for the community.

The key lies in collaboration-led conservation

Numerous Indigenous guardian projects have gained traction in recent years,  each aiming to protect their ecosystems. For initiatives like QENTOL, YEN,  that includes collaborating with researchers to bring together traditional, local knowledge and scientific techniques and tools to bring out the best outcomes.

“We are not all experts in our fields. And so, we have others who work with us towards a common goal,” Dick says. 

And in the spirit of collaboration, the Marine Guardians have also been sharing their knowledge and monitoring programs with other groups. For Dick, the collaborative ideal is essential for preserving not only the area that QENTOL, YEN serves, but helping other initiatives and First Nations to do the same all throughout B.C.

“For the last six months we’ve had First Nations from Vancouver Island and on the mainland have come to see us to see the work,” Dick says. “We need to start working together more as one. We call this Nuts’a’maat – everything is one.”For more information on QENTOL, YEN projects, please visit: