Will there be peace on Earth for killer whales?

On finding our place in creation

Special to the Times Colonist.

The holidays are a time for celebration as we come together with family and friends for seasonal gatherings or at places of worship.

But at this time of year, we might do well to reflect on whether we will ever achieve “peace on earth” unless we are willing to extend goodwill and compassion to the non-human inhabitants with whom we share this planet, especially those whose very existence hangs in the balance.

In B.C., that means killer whales.

Two distinct populations of resident killer whales reside in B.C.’s waters. The northern residents are commonly found on b.c.’s north coast and the southern residents in the Salish Sea.

The northern and southern residents differ in population size, population trends, dialects and, importantly, their status under Canada’s Species at Risk Act. The northern residents have a larger, more stable population and are designated as threatened, whereas the southern residents have an extremely small, declining population, and are designated as endangered. Their population has been hovering around 80 individuals since 47 whales were captured and taken for the aquarium trade before 1974.

Southern resident killer whales face an uncertain future, because of diminished numbers of Chinook salmon (their primary food), vessel disturbance and underwater noise and pollution. They also face the threat of oil spills. Recent analysis by Canadian and U.S. scientists gives them a 50 per cent chance of survival over the next 100 years.

Sadly, the population projections for the year 2030 have already been realized, as the number of southern residents is now below 80 whales.

Because southern resident killer whales have been lawfully classified as endangered, the federal government is compelled to implement a recovery strategy that ensures their survival. Yet, the government continues to delay implementation of a credible and comprehensive plan.

Its current action plan lacks action, ostensibly because gaps in ecological research are deemed a reasonable excuse for inaction. The government has already lost twice in court for its failure to act in accordance with science and the law to protect these animals.

The southern residents are no better off now than when they were listed as endangered 15 years ago. Federal fisheries managers appear unwilling to address the availability of Chinook salmon, an essential food for whales, lest they rile interests in the sports and commercial-fishing sectors.

If our grandchildren are to grow up with resident killer whales in the Salish Sea, crucial decisions need to be made now.

For example, an analysis by federal scientists shows that curtailing Chinook fisheries in the ocean can improve the survival rates of these whales. Correspondingly, letting more Chinook salmon spawn could rebuild Chinook runs and provide these whales with the food supply they need.

The federal government’s long-awaited Resident Killer Whale Action Plan finally appeared in 2014. Many had anticipated the plan would include measures to mitigate the hazards confronting the southern residents. Alas, the plan failed to include substantive action to reverse what is becoming a grave situation.

But this quandary is not simply a numeric one. Highly intelligent, social and sensitive, with sophisticated communication skills and strong family ties, these whales have an intrinsic right to live their lives.

While the debate regarding the fate of the southern residents primarily takes place in the realm of science, management and policy, it also brings up issues around ethics, morality and even spirituality.

In fact, I would argue that the matter of what we choose, or do not choose, to do on behalf of this endangered population of killer whales is, for British Columbians and Canadians, one of the quintessential spiritual decisions of our time.

Having been raised a Catholic, I often recall the teachings of St. Francis of Assisi. Keith Warner and David DeCosse of Santa Clara University have written: “St. Francis of Assisi is an example of someone who understood himself to live in a world charged with divine life, in a sacramental world. He was named patron saint of ecologists because he celebrated the beauty and diversity of creation through his prayer and preaching. [In] his Canticle of the Creatures Francis sang of all creation as brother and sister.”

“He viewed the entire created world as members of the divine family.”

If we cannot find the charity in our hearts to allow the southern residents to recover and regain their rightful place in the coastal ecosystem we all share, what will that ultimately say about us as a species?

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Coastal wolf with a salmon in its month.
Photo by Dene Rossouw.