Press release: Conservation groups take ministers to court to protect endangered killer whales

VANCOUVER – Six conservation organizations are launching a new lawsuit aimed at protecting endangered Southern Resident killer whales.

The suit comes less than a month after a killer whale mother carried her deceased calf for an unprecedented 17 days, drawing worldwide attention to the imminent threats facing the genetically unique population of whales.

Ecojustice lawyers asked the Federal Court to review the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans and Minister of Environment and Climate Change’s failure to recommend an emergency order to protect Southern Resident killer whales under the Species at Risk Act, in an application filed on behalf of David Suzuki Foundation, Georgia Strait Alliance, Natural Resources Defense Council, Raincoast Conservation Foundation and World Wildlife Fund Canada earlier today.

“In her unprecedented 17-days of mourning, J-35, the killer whale also known as Tahlequah, showed us the devastating consequences of inaction on this issue. Her calf survived only half an hour, following three years of unsuccessful births in the population,” Ecojustice lawyer Dyna Tuytel said. “Given Minister Wilkinson and Minister McKenna’s failure to recommend emergency protections in a timely fashion, we have little choice but to turn to the courts.”

The ministers announced on May 24 that the Southern Residents face “imminent threats” to their survival and recovery. Having acknowledged this, the ministers are now legally required to recommend Cabinet issue an emergency order under the Species at Risk Act, unless there are other legal measures already in place.

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.

The groups first called on the ministers to recommend an order in a petition they issued in January, 2018. Since then, the groups have continued to push for emergency protections, or equivalent mandatory measures.

Now, the conservation groups say the Southern Residents cannot afford further delays.
“Emergency orders are specifically designed for circumstances like this, when you have a species that needs more than delayed plans and half-measures to survive and recover,” Christianne Wilhelmson, the executive director of the Georgia Strait Alliance, said. “Securing an order is vital for the Southern Residents and their habitat, which is also home to an estimated 3,000 species of marine life.”

“These killer whales are not finding enough of their preferred prey, Chinook salmon, which are also in decline. Noise and physical disturbance from vessels hinders the whales’ ability to hunt. Southern Residents remain at risk of malnutrition unless we act now to rebuild the Chinook salmon population and address these imminent threats immediately,” said Jay Ritchlin, director-general for Western Canada at David Suzuki Foundation.

“The Species at Risk Act gives the Canadian government broad authority to protect at-risk species facing imminent threats to their survival or recovery. It is shocking that Minister Wilkinson and Minister McKenna have not yet recommended an emergency order to protect Southern Resident killer whales,” Michael Jasny, director of marine mammal protection at Natural Resources Defense Council added. “It is difficult to imagine a species in more urgent need.”

Southern Resident killer whales are a genetically, behaviorally, and culturally distinct population of killer whales that feed primarily on Chinook and chum salmon. Only 75 members of the population remain and no successful births have been documented since 2015. Lacking protective safeguards, the likelihood of the Southern Residents becoming extinct is high because they are isolated genetically and socially, their population size is small, and critical habitat in the Salish Sea, on which their survival depends, has been degraded.

“Our research demonstrates that recovery of Southern Resident killer whales requires comprehensive fisheries restrictions, beyond the partial measures the government introduced this summer, as well as measures to reduce noise and disturbance from vessels. With the population facing imminent threats to its very survival, we cannot risk further delaying tangible action,” Chris Genovali, Executive Director of Raincoast Conservation Foundation said.

“By the government’s own admission, this population of killer whales faces imminent threats to their survival. Yet government has not taken timely action to ensure the recovery of these whales by addressing issues such as Chinook salmon availability and by placing limits on all sources of disturbance in the orcas’ critical habitat. This isn’t optional – it’s a legal requirement under the Species at Risk Act,” said Megan Leslie, president and CEO of WWF-Canada.


Ecojustice, Canada’s largest environmental law charity, goes to court to defend nature, combat climate change, and fight for a healthy environment for all.

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) is an international nonprofit environmental organization with a more than 3 million members and online activists. Since 1970, our lawyers, scientists, and other environmental specialists have worked to protect the world’s natural resources, public health, and the environment.

WWF-Canada creates solutions to the environmental challenges that matter most for Canadians. For more information, visit