Courtesy of Douglas Todd, Reporter, Vancouver Sun/Canadian Press

Orca whales are declining along parts of B.C.'s coast, prompting Ottawa to place them on its list of threatened species.

The number of resident killer whales in southern Georgia Strait has declined in the past three years by about 10, to 89, said John Ford, director of marine mammal research at the Vancouver Aquarium.

The updated list of Canada's at-risk animals is expected to be released today at the end of a meeting of national wildlife experts who have spent the week in Ottawa reviewing the state of 80 animal and plant species.

Sources close to the meeting say that in addition to B.C.'s resident orca whales, many other plants and animals, including Ontario's harmless fox snake and Quebec's spring salamander, will be put on the committee's list of at-risk species.

The main threat to B.C.'s orca population appears to be declining salmon stocks, Ford said.

The most important source of food for B.C.'s roughly 300 resident orcas appears to be salmon, particularly chinook, he said. "And spring salmon stocks are not in the best shape right now."

Whale-watching eco-tourism, which can sometimes lead to more than 100 boats following a pod of killer whales, is also a threat to the orcas, said biologist Paul Spong.

He said intense whale watching on the southern coast critically disrupts the orcas' eating, sleeping and socializing.

"Putting orcas on the list is good because it means they're under a more watchful eye," said Spong, who has spent 30 years studying orcas from his base, called ORCALAND, on Hanson Island near Alert Bay.

But in the absence of a federal endangered species law, neither Ford nor Spong knew exactly what legal implications are involved with the at-risk designation.

Ford and Spong agree that the resident killer whale population in northern coastal waters remains strong, and even growing, at about 200.

But Ford said his contacts tell him it's "99-per-cent certain" it will be announced today that the Pacific orcas will go on the "threatened" list.

Species considered at risk are labelled either vulnerable, threatened or endangered.

Vulnerable means a plant or animal could be harmed by human activities.

Threatened means a plant or animal is likely to become endangered if damaging factors aren't reversed.

Endangered animals or plants face imminent extinction in specific areas or altogether.

Another 300 or more "transient" whales, which travel through B.C. waters from California to Alaska, are considered generally safe and are not being discussed this year by the species review committee.

The review committee, which includes wildlife experts and conservation agencies, has worked for 21 years without the backing of a federal endangered species law.

Environment Minister Christine Stewart has said she hopes to introduce legislation before the summer that would include expanded recovery plans to help protect threatened species.

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