Order protects habitat of West Coast whales

Globe and Mail
February 26, 2009
Mark Hume

VANCOUVER — Nine environmental groups that were taking the federal government to court for allegedly failing to protect endangered killer whale populations off the West Coast  are claiming a major victory because of an obscure order made under the Species At Risk Act.

The order, issued jointly by the Ministry of Environment and Department of Fisheries and Oceans, simply states that the Species at Risk Act “applies to the critical habitats of the Northeast Pacific northern and southern resident populations of the killer whale.”

But Lara Tessaro, staff lawyer for Ecojustice Canada, said yesterday that the brief, technical note is of vital importance to killer whales because “it makes it an offence to destroy critical habitat.”

Ms. Tessaro, whose non-profit foundation has been battling DFO in Federal Court in support of the environmental groups, said that until now the government has refused to acknowledge that any new laws were needed to protect killer-whale populations, which on the British Columbia coast are in sharp decline.

She said DFO’s argument in court was that existing laws were working. “It looks like they’ve seen the light,” Ms. Tessaro said of the order, which is posted on the SARA website.

Ms. Tessaro said before abandoning the Federal Court action against DFO, Ecojustice will wait to see what details are provided next month, when the government is expected to publish a detailed rationale for its order.

In a recovery strategy for northern and southern resident killer whales, which was published last March by DFO, critical habitat was identified. But the government did not follow up with an order that tied protection of that habitat to the Species at Risk Act.

Now that that has been done, Ms. Tessaro said, the government will have to come up with an action plan that identifies threats to killer whales and proposes ways to protect habitat.

Ms. Tessaro said activities that destroy habitat, or make it useless to killer whales, could include overfishing of salmon, seismic drilling, the release of toxic pollutants and oil spills.

She said the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska has been directly linked to the collapse of a killer-whale population there, and argues that under the new order federal officials now have the responsibility to restrict oil-tanker activity in killer-whale habitat.

“This order is important, but to give the order teeth the government needs to tie it to an action plan,” Ms. Tessaro said. “How are we going to manage the threats? What will integrated fisheries management plans look like [when they take into account killer-whale diets]? How will we make sure oil-tanker traffic never comes about in critical killer-whale habitat? Those are critical questions that have yet to be answered.”

DFO officials could not immediately be reached for comment.

The nine environmental groups involved in the DFO lawsuit are: Environmental Defence, Raincoast Conservation Society, Georgia Strait Alliance, Sierra Club, Wilderness Committee, Dogwood Initiative, David Suzuki Foundation, International Fund for Animal Welfare and Greenpeace.

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