Letter in Science identifies the contradiction between protecting economic growth and biodiversity in Canada’s Fraser River Estuary 

Will Canada sign a permit for killer whale extinction?

The June 30th, 2023 edition of the journal Science features a letter written by Raincoast science staff on the repercussions of expanding the shipping terminal at Roberts Bank in the Fraser River Estuary. The letter, asking whether Canada will permit killer whale extinction, identifies Canada’s conflicting aspirations and obligations to protect biodiversity while continuing to permit megaprojects that destroy the critical habitat of threatened and endangered species.

MacDuffee, Misty, Lance Barrett-Lennard, Auston Chhor, Allison M. Dennert, Peter S. Ross, David C. Scott, Valeria Vergara, and Kristen Walters. Science. Will Canada permit killer whale extinction? Letter to the editor. 9 Jun 2023 Vol 380, Issue 6652.  

The authors identify Canada’s most recent commitments to conservation made at the 2022 COP15 UN Biodiversity Conference held in Montreal. At the most basic level, such a commitment requires governments to protect the habitat needed by species for food, shelter, foraging, and producing offspring. 

As well, protecting biodiversity often requires controlling unnatural sources of mortality. Importantly, for many Canadian species, biodiversity protection also requires a recognition of and response to climate change, a stressor that can further undermine feeding, reproduction, and securing shelter. Species recognized by Canada’s provincial and national assessment bodies as threatened or endangered are already facing stressors from some or all of the above.

Untrammeled economic growth and biodiversity conservation do not go hand-in-hand

In its decision to approve the Terminal 2 expansion at Roberts Bank, the federal government cited ‘economic need’ as the reason to override the legal obligations for species recovery, concerns for habitat loss, and conservation needs of other Fraser River estuary species. This decision underscores the unsustainable nature of our global economy. While we agree it is possible to have both economic prosperity and biodiversity protection, we cannot meet this ideal under a model of unrestricted growth that is premised on the conversion of natural capital (including habitat) to monetary capital. Under this model, the world economy grows at the expense and exclusion of other species and ecosystems.

Conservation efforts are designed to improve current and future conditions, but market interests often discount future benefits and costs in favour of present consumption. This attitude prevails because only monetary benefits and costs associated with commodities are recognized in conventional marketplace transactions. Accordingly, unchecked exploitation of our natural world has mortgaged the future while accruing a massive ecological debt.

A permit authorizing the destruction of critical habitat is required for the project to move forward

Southern Resident killer whales are an endangered population that uses the waterways of the Salish Sea and Fraser River Estuary to feed, communicate, and raise their offspring. These waters are already noisy, polluted and lack an adequate supply of the whales’ primary prey, Chinook salmon. The federal panel reviewing the project on behalf of the Government of Canada concluded that expansion of the shipping port will make these conditions worse. 

Because Southern Residents are protected under Canada’s Species at Risk Act (SARA), the destruction of their legally protected critical habitat requires a special SARA permit issued by the federal body charged with the whales’ protection: Fisheries and Oceans Canada.  All independent and federal assessments of the whales’ likelihood for recovery show that conditions in the Salish Sea (i.e. abundance of prey, water quality, and underwater noise) must improve if the whales are to recover. If conditions decline, this only hastens their likelihood of extinction.

Given all that we know about these killer whales, the human actions that threaten them, and what they need from humans for their recovery, will the federal government really sign a permit for their extinction?

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