Conservation groups put ministers on notice over Southern Resident killer whale protections

VANCOUVER – 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.

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.