Conservation groups put ministers on notice over Southern Resident killer whales

Faced with declining stocks of Chinook salmon, their primary source of food, and acoustic and physical disturbance from vessels, which interferes with their ability to hunt and communicate, the Southern Residents are at serious risk of malnutrition and starvation.

Juvenile killer whale and mother off the coast of British Columbia.

Photo by Eric Sambol.

Conservation groups are putting Minister of Environment and Climate Change Catherine McKenna and Minister of Fisheries and Oceans Dominic LeBlanc on notice as the groups race to secure protection for endangered Southern Resident killer whales.

In an April 5 letter sent on behalf of David Suzuki Foundation, Georgia Strait Alliance, Natural Resources Defense Council, Raincoast Conservation Foundation and World Wildlife Fund Canada, Ecojustice lawyers notified the ministers that the groups “may be forced to take action” if McKenna and LeBlanc fail to recommend an emergency order under the Species at Risk Act before May 1.

That date marks the beginning of the Southern Residents’ annual return to their critical habitat in the Salish Sea, their primary home from May to October.

Since issuing a petition to the ministers in January, 2018, the groups have repeatedly called for an emergency order to protect the Southern Residents from critical threats to their immediate and long-term survival.

An emergency order is the most effective way for government to cut through red tape and take swift action to address imminent threats to the Southern Residents.

On March 21, the groups met with Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Environment and Climate Change Canada and Transport Canada to discuss the government’s plans with respect to the Southern Resident killer whales.

Unfortunately, ministry representatives would not commit to an emergency order at that time.

They also failed to identify other specific enforceable actions to protect the Southern Residents this upcoming season, with the exception of proposing an experimental fishing closure for salmon or finfish in some key foraging areas.

Faced with the possibility that the 2018 season could pass without enforceable measures to protect the Southern Residents, in particular from disturbance by recreational boaters, whale watchers and shipping, Ecojustice signaled the groups’ willingness to take further steps — including legal action — if the ministers do not recommend an emergency order or equivalent mandatory protections by May 1.

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Southern Resident killer whales make up a genetically and culturally distinct population of orcas that feeds on salmon. Only 76 members of the population remain.

Faced with declining stocks of Chinook salmon, their primary source of food, and acoustic and physical disturbance from vessels, which interferes with their ability to hunt and communicate, the Southern Residents are at serious risk of malnutrition and starvation.

Representatives from the groups behind the letter released the following statements:

Jeffery Young, Senior Science and Policy Analyst at David Suzuki Foundation:

“Both Southern Resident killer whales and B.C. Chinook salmon are in a state of emergency. Strong protections under an emergency order will ensure as many Chinook salmon return as possible. These whales will not survive unless we act immediately to rebuild Chinook salmon populations.”

Dyna Tuytel, lawyer with Ecojustice:

“With only 76 Southern Resident killer whales remaining, this can only be described as an emergency situation. Fortunately, emergency orders under the Species at Risk Act are specifically designed to address these circumstances. The ministers must recommend an emergency order or take equivalent measures before the Southern Residents make their annual return to the Salish Sea — or Ecojustice and our partners will be forced to take further action.”

Christianne Wilhelmson, Executive Director of Georgia Strait Alliance:

“Our impression is that Ministers McKenna and LeBlanc are waiting until the 76 remaining orcas are faced with a new threat— vessel strikes or a catastrophic oil spill from increased tanker traffic —before a series of actionable measures are implemented to mitigate current threats to orcas’ critical habitat, which have put them on the verge of extinction. Continued in-action will make extinction inevitable.”

Michael Jasny, Director of Marine Mammal Protection at Natural Resources Defense Council:

“As we near the summer season, when Southern Residents spend the majority of their time in the transboundary waters of the Salish Sea, the need for strong, enforceable protections is becoming increasingly urgent. We are in a race to protect this iconic species — and the Canadian government cannot afford to delay emergency action any longer.”

Misty MacDuffee, Wild Salmon Program Director at Raincoast Conservation Foundation:

“We cannot let politics decide the fate of the Southern Resident killer whales. Once again, we may be forced into taking legal action simply to have our federal government act on its own laws. Our collective time, money and effort would be best used to aid the recovery of this critically endangered population because extinction is forever.”

Megan Leslie, President and CEO of WWF-Canada:

“Over the next few months, Southern Resident Killer Whales will be coming more frequently to feed in their critical habitat in the Salish Sea. An emergency order is the most expedient way for the federal government to ensure that measures are in place to give these endangered orcas the best chance of making it through the summer without a further reduction to their numbers. We’re disappointed government isn’t using every tool at its disposal to help this iconic population of orcas, and WWF-Canada will continue to press for measurable reductions in the threats they face.”


Media release, April 5, 2018

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