Ruling demands DFO do more for orcas

By Sean McIntyre – Gulf Islands Driftwood
Published: December 15, 2010

A coalition of environmental groups from coastal British Columbia is celebrating a federal court’s Dec. 7 decision that confirms the Department of Fisheries and Oceans failed to protect critical habitat for resident killer whales.

“This is a victory not just for the resident killer whales, but for the more than 90 other marine species listed under the federal Species at Risk Act,” said Margot Venton, a lawyer with Ecojustice, in a press release after the decision.

“The court has confirmed that the government must legally protect all aspects of critical habitat from destruction. Now DFO needs to obey its own law.”

The ruling requires DFO implement legally binding regulations to preserve the availability of food and the marine environment in the killer whales’ critical habitat.

“The low abundance of salmon, chemical pollution and physical and acoustic disturbance have all been identified as key threats to the critical habitat of resident killer whales, said Raincoast Conservation’s Misty MacDuffee. “The court has confirmed that DFO is legally required to protect these features. Considering the whales in fishing plans is a first step toward this implementation.”

The decision requires DFO use federal laws as outlined in the Species At Risk Act to protect habitat rather than rely on provincial regulations and guidelines.

Exactly what steps will be taken to protect habitat and food supplies have not been identified and will be up to DFO officials. A Pacific office rep said DFO is reviewing the decision and its options.

The legal challenge stemmed from DFO’s attempt to protect the orca habitat by using voluntary guidelines and non-binding laws outlined in a 2008 Protection Statement. Court heard that a subsequent Protection Order, issued
by DFO in 2009, ignored critical habitat components.

Two distinct killer whale populations live in B.C. waters year round. The southern resident population is estimated at around 85 animals while the northern population is roughly 220.

During the summer months, southern resident pods are commonly seen in Haro Strait and the San Juan Islands, and northern residents are often seen in the Johnstone Strait area.

Though pods have been observed in inshore waters throughout the year, some may go offshore during the winter.

Ecojustice represented the David Suzuki Foundation, Dogwood Initiative, Environmental Defence, Greenpeace, Georgia Strait Alliance, International Fund for Animal Welfare, Raincoast Conservation, Sierra Club of B.C. and the
Wilderness Committee during the proceedings.

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