Time is running out for the remaining 76 orcas that make up B.C.’s Southern Resident killer whale population and the federal government should take action to intervene, say a coalition of environmental groups petitioning Ottawa for an emergency order under the Species At Risk Act.
The groups say the petition is coming now because they believe the endangered population is at a critical juncture.
“There isn’t time to wait around,” said Dyna Tuytel, a lawyer for Ecojustice, which filed the petition on behalf of the David Suzuki Foundation, World Wildlife Fund, Georgia Strait Alliance, Raincoast Conservation Foundation and the U.S.-based Natural Resources Defense Council.
The Southern Resident population lives around southern Vancouver Island and down into Washington’s Puget Sound. The three pods comprising the population haven’t produced a calf that’s survived since 2015.
Overall, the population is at its lowest point since before a ban on live-capture for aquariums took effect in 1975.
According to Raincoast biologist Misty MacDuffee, the population is suffering from a lack of food, stress from disturbance and the cumulative effects of pollution in their environment.
“It’s gotten to the point where we’re losing healthy reproductive animals,” MacDuffee told DeSmog Canada. She says a loss like that can affect the health of the entire population.
The petition asks the Minister of Environment and Climate Change Catherine McKenna, as well as the Fisheries Minister Dominic LeBlanc, to intervene.
The groups want more protected habitat, measures to help Chinook salmon recover, protection from whale watching boats and speed limits and noise reduction for vessels in the area, among other measures.
The ministers have been asked to impose the emergency orders by March 1.
Pressure from ships, fisheries, pollution
Chinook salmon are the preferred meal of the Southern Resident orcas. But the fish in the whales’ range have been suffering in recent decades, with 11 of the 15 populations the Department of Fisheries and Oceans adequately studied (there are 35 total) found to be in the “red zone,” indicating an unhealthy population.
Fifty-five thousand recreational fishing trips take place in the Southern Residents’ range each year, both removing fish and disturbing the whales while they forage.
Meanwhile, hunting has become increasingly difficult for the whales as noise from passing ships and boats hampers their communication and scrambles their echolocation, the primary tool the whales use to find their prey.
Finally, accumulation of pollutants such as PCBs in the environment, which mimics hormones in mammals, could be affecting the whales’ ability to reproduce.
“These things act synergistically,” says MacDuffee.
But the groups say there’s an even bigger threat.
Government dragging heels on endangered species responsibilities
“The biggest problem this species faces is a lethargy on behalf of the government, and an inability to take decisive action,” says Christianne Wilhelmson, executive director of the Georgia Strait Alliance.
“I’m at a loss for saying why this government won’t act, except a lack of courage, and a lack of will .… Choosing not to decide is still making a choice.”
The Species At Risk Act fully took effect in 2004, and lays out the government’s responsibility to protect endangered species, such as the Southern Resident killer whales.
But so far, the groups say planning and bureaucracy have dominated while tangible action, such as protecting critical habitat, has been lacking. That criticism have also been levelled at the government with regard to other species, such as woodland caribou.
In 2012, the government lost a lawsuit to Ecojustice, which said Canada had failed 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,” says Tuytel of Ecojustice. “What’s needed is to actually implement what we’ve learned about the species and what needs to be done.”
Jeffery Young, senior science and policy analyst at the David Suzuki Foundation, agrees.
“It’s been over a decade that the government has known that these species are endangered,” says Young. “The process under the Species At Risk Act requires them to make certain steps toward recovery; however, they’ve found places within that process where they can delay. And they’ve constantly delayed.”
Since the courts found the federal government had failed to follow its own laws to protect critical habitat for the whales, the feds have approved the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain oil pipeline and tanker project, which will create a seven-fold increase in the number of oil tankers travelling through critical habitat for endangered orca.
Fisheries and Oceans Minister Dominic LeBlanc declined to comment for this story. Catherine McKenna’s office did not respond to a request for comment from DeSmog Canada.