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Canada Pledges $12 Million to Research Endangered Killer Whales, But Critics Say Urgent Action Still Needed

The federal government has announced over $12 million to enhance protections for endangered whales on the West Coast, especially the endangered Southern resident killer whale.

That population, at 76 animals, is at its lowest point since live capture for aquariums was banned in 1975, prompting urgent calls for federal intervention.

As part of the $1.5 billion federal Oceans Protection Plan, $9 million of the newly announced funds will go towards reducing collisions between ships and whales.

Another $3.1 million is set aside for research into threats to whales, underwater listening stations and research into the health of chinook salmon populations, the prefered food source for Southern resident killer whales.

David Hannay, chief science officer of JASCO Applied Sciences, which operates a listening station in the Strait of Georgia, welcomed the news.

“I think it’s a very good thing. I believe that noise has been overlooked,” he told DeSmog Canada. “These animals use sound the way humans use vision.”

Hannay says traffic noise has been steady over the two-and-a-half years the company has been monitoring the area.

Andrew Trites, director of the UBC Marine Mammal Research Unit which will receive $1.1 of the new funding, said he welcomes a federal government friendly to research and science.

“We only have to think back to the previous federal government when so many scientific programs were cut. I’m quite excited for what lies ahead.”

More action to protect killer whales urgently needed

While some are celebrating government’s commitment to further research, some scientists say what’s urgently needed is action, not more study.

“We could study them literally to death at this point,” says Paul Paquet, adjunct professor at the University of Victoria and senior scientist with the Raincoast Conservation Foundation.* 

“What we’re really looking for from the federal government right now is threat reductions,” says Misty MacDuffee, a biologist at Raincoast.

In February, Raincoast, along with a number of other prominent NGOs including Ecojustice, David Suzuki Foundation, and the World Wildlife Fund, asked the government to immediately issue an emergency order under the Species At Risk Act to protect salmon stocks and habitat for the whales by the beginning of March.

The groups pointed out killer whales’ feeding grounds and the salmon populations they depend on have been deteriorating at the hands of noisy and dangerous ship traffic, chemical pollutants, commercial and recreational fisheries, warmer water temperatures and other industrial activity for decades.

The federal government did not impose emergency orders to protect the whales by March 1, as the groups requested, but fisheries minister Dominic LeBlanc told the Canadian Press Thursday that there could be action coming soon.

“We’re going to be making a series of decisions in the coming weeks that may necessarily represent some disruption for certain sectors but will be guided by scientific advice and our solemn responsibility to ensure the protection and recovery of southern resident killer whales,” LeBlanc told the news service.

According to the scientists, some follow-through is long overdue.

“Our major concern is that most of this has been well known since the early 2000s,” Paquet said.

In 2008, the federal government released a recovery strategy for Southern resident killer whales, which at times took on a gloomy tone.

“The population is small and declining, and the decline is expected to continue,” it read.

“Southern residents are limited by the availability of their principal prey, Chinook salmon. There are forecasts of continued low abundance of Chinook salmon. Southern residents are also threatened by increasing physical and acoustical disturbance, oil spills and contaminants.”

“It was clearly acknowledged by our federal government in 2008,” Paquet said. “We’ve been waiting and waiting for the government to take some sort of action that would at least contribute to the protection of killer whales, but none has been taken to date.”

But Trites welcomed the opportunity to do more research, saying the vast majority of studies done on B.C.’s killer whales is focused on the Northern resident population.

“The Southern resident population — they’re the outlier. Other killer whales are doing extremely well. On top of that other marine mammals off the coast of B.C. are doing well,” Tites told DeSmog Canada.

The Southern resident population resides in waters near Vancouver Island and travel as far south as California, some of the busiest waterways for the species, Tites said. He added there are other species putting pressure on the whales, like an increasing population of sea lions that compete for chinook.

“There are lots of things at play here. I think we know enough to take some initial steps to lesson stressors on these whales. But we need more research to be effective.”

“I can tell you I’ve spent my entire career studying ecosystems and changes and usually what you think is the most obvious cause it not the cause at all,” Tites said.

Trans Mountain pipeline clashes with species at risk

MacDuffee said announcements like today’s obscure the federal government’s lack of concrete steps like habitat restoration, creation of protected areas, noise restrictions, fisheries closures and quota reductions — actions she says are less politically palatable than research funding.

Southern resident killer whales were listed as endangered in 2003, the same year Northern resident killer whales were listed as threatened. It look the federal government five years to release a recovery plan.

Despite the listing, the federal government has failed to introduce key measures to protect critical habitat.

In 2012 the environmental legal firm Ecojustice took Canada to court for failing to protect critical habitat for Northern and Southern resident orcas within the 180-day window mandated by the Species At Risk Act.

“The government has produced a recovery strategy and it’s produced an action plan, but so far these documents are just plans to make plans,” Dyna Tuytel, a lawyer for Ecojustice told DeSmog in February.

“What’s needed is to actually implement what we’ve learned about the species and what needs to be done.”

In October 2017 Raincoast and the Living Oceans Society took the federal government to court for approving the Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline without assessing how the project’s seven-fold increase in oil tanker traffic would affect Southern Resident killer whales.

According to the two groups, the Trans Mountain project represents an existential threat to the population.

The project’s approval has led some experts to criticize Canada’s soft approach to species at risk legislation.

Ship noise is already harming the whales, according to a recent study. It found noise from up to 1,600 ships over the two-year study period was blocking their ability to find their prey.

The Port of Vancouver’s ECHO program has received international recognition for its trial of a slowdown zone in Haro Strait, which concluded that slowing down had a measurable effect on ambient noise in nearby critical killer whale habitat.

The goal of the EcoAction Incentive Program, developed as a result of research conducted by ECHO, is eventually to develop a fee system for ships that would depend on the noise they generate, incentivizing companies to invest in quieter, but more expensive ships.*

MacDuffee and Paquet say that such reductions in speed and the associated noise are essential — but that they need to be implemented now, rather than waiting for the results of further study.

* Update: March 19, 11:38 am PST. This story was updated to note the fact that Paul Paquet is a senior scientists with the Raincoast Conservation Program and to clarify the goal of the EcoAction Incentive Program.

Jimmy Thomson is a Yellowknife-based freelance journalist. He has worked as a CBC videojournalist and has bylines in the Globe…

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