Killer whales in BC are in trouble. The Departments of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) failure to protect critical habitat has lead Dogwood Initiative to join a lawsuit filed by Ecojustice demanding their protection.
Declining salmon stocks, physical and acoustic disturbance from increased shipping, toxic contamination from industrial activities, and acoustic impacts from dredging, seismic testing and military sonar all threaten the orcas with extinction.
That is why Southern Residents Killer Whales are listed as an endangered species and the Northern Residents as a threatened species under Canada’s Species at Risk Act.
These listing should have required the federal DFO to legally protect critical habitat of BC’s most iconic marine mammals. Scientist prepared a Recovery Strategy that identified Orca’s, critical habitat, threats to their survival, and a broad conservation strategy to address those threats
Among the threats identified was the impact of oil spill, the impact of which the scientists identified as “potentially catastrophic.”
Unfortunately, after years of delay DFO ignored the scientific panel’s recommendations and decided to take no action to protect killer whale’s critical habitat. Instead DFO claimed that Resident Killer Whale Critical Habitat is protected by existing laws and policies.
We expect better from our government that is why Dogwood Initiative joined a number of other groups in a lawsuit filed by Ecojustice challenging DFO’s decision to not protect Orca habitat.
The lawsuit, filed last October, follows a long struggle by the Killer Whale Recovery Team – independent scientists and government scientists tasked with preparing a Recovery Strategy for these orcas – to ensure that the recovery plan included information showing the orcas’ critical habitat. Critical habitat is the habitat that is necessary for the survival or recovery of a species-at-risk.
Dr. Lance Barrett-Lennard, a leading international scientific expert on killer whales and the Co-Chair of the Resident Killer Whale Recovery Team, has noted that the team resisted multiple attempts by senior government officials to remove critical habitat and other scientific information from the Resident Killer Whale Recovery Strategy prior to its completion.
We believe that one of the reasons DFO refused to protect killer whale habitat was they didn’t want to interfere with proposals to bring tar sands tankers to BC waters, particularly Enbridge’s Gateway project proposed for Kitimat and Kinder Morgan’s expansion of its tanker terminal in Burnaby.
It is well established that the routine and accidental discharge of petroleum products, such as during an oil spill from a transiting or berthed tanker, can cause immediate mortalities of Orcas and can contribute to decreases in future survival rates through lingering effects on Orcas and on Orca food sources.
In their Recovery Strategy, the scientists highlight this risk saying both resident populations of orcas are at risk from an oil spill because “proposed expansion of tanker traffic in the north and central coast of BC. … If moratorium…is lifted…transport of oil may put northern resident killer whales at additional risk….
The Scientists emphasized the impact an oil spill would have,
“Killer whales do not appear to avoid oil, as evidenced by the 1989 Exxon Valdez in Prince William Sound, Alaska. Less than a week after the spill, resident whales were observed surfacing directly in the slick (Seven whales were missing at this time, and within a year, 13 of them were dead. This rate of mortality was unprecedented, and there was strong spatial and temporal correlation between the spill and the deaths”
Dogwood Initiative believes that one way to overcome DFO’s resistance to protecting Orca’s critical habitat is to legislate an oil tanker ban on BC’s north coast and in other important Orca habitat.