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Thursday, April 24, 2014

Humpback recovery at risk

By Karen Wristen

I’ve long wondered why, amid the carnage of the omnibus bills we’ve seen since the current federal government took office, the Species at Risk Act was spared. “No appetite to tackle that one,” is the only answer I’ve heard from those who are on speaking terms with Cabinet. Is it the sting we feel when Canada is cited as an international pariah for failing to meet its commitments; or are there a lot of animal enthusiasts among the Conservative support base? I don’t know, but I have been grateful that at least one piece of environmental legislation stood intact.

A humpback breaching in Barclay Sound. Photo: Jeff Reynolds
My gratitude in the case of humpbacks was especially poignant. The need to protect them while their numbers recover from the ravages of whaling had them listed as a “threatened” species and that presented a major legal hurdle to the approval of the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline. So long as they were “threatened”, the government had a legal obligation to identify and protect the habitat that is critical to their survival. And part of that habitat just happens to lie among the network of narrow channels leading to Kitimat.

The Act required a Recovery Plan for humpbacks, due in 2010. When it still hadn’t materialized in 2012, several of our colleagues took the government to court. Long after the Enbridge hearings had closed, in October of 2013, the government issued the Recovery Plan. I was pleased to see that, in the final draft, it continued to identify the approach to Kitimat as the whales’ critical habitat and the tanker traffic as a major threat to their continued recovery.

During the Enbridge hearings, the Joint Review Panel had been spared the impossible task of reconciling the legal protection due to critical habitat with the company’s plans to send hundreds of tankers and tugs through that habitat every year. The habitat had not yet been legally designated as “critical habitat”, so there was no need to address the protection provisions of the Act. Enbridge got away with the suggestion that it would ‘monitor’ the whales, send spotters out to look for them and come up with a ‘marine mammal protection plan.’ The JRP applauded this voluntary undertaking, noting that it was inevitable that some whales would still be struck by tankers; they just couldn’t say how many and didn’t seem to think it would be a problem.

If you’ve ever watched whales or seen a supertanker maneuver, you’ll likely know how unlikely that scheme was to work. Sure, you can send out spotters; but the fact that they see whales in Whale Channel doesn’t mean they won’t pop up in Lewis Pass just after the captain’s altered course. And there’s precious little room up there to change your mind once committed to a course, anyway. The interests of whales and big oil were literally on a collision course.
Vital feeding areas for Humpback Whales around Gill Island are designated as critical habitat. This area is also part of the proposed tanker route. Humpbacks are the species of whale most commonly reported to be struck by ships in B.C.
The solution, for the Canadian government, has just become evident: on Saturday, April 19 it published notice of its intention to change the status of Northern Pacific humpbacks from ‘threatened’ to ‘species of special concern.’ This eliminates the need to protect the richly productive habitat that these whales depend on throughout the summer, to build the reserves of energy that will carry them through their long winter migrations. It puts at particular risk the young whales, whose smaller lungs require them to surface more frequently for air.

To be fair, it is true that humpback recovery is a success story. Hunted nearly to extinction, over the last 50 years they have slowly but steadily rebounded to about half of their estimated pre-hunt population. To be clear, we know so little about them that the Department of Fisheries and Oceans was unable to set a recovery target for them in its Recovery Plan, so we have no idea if their recovery to date is adequate to ensure resilience to future threats and keep the population growing. We cannot say, with any certainty, how many humpback whales is ‘enough.’

If the government thought that releasing this decision on the Easter long weekend would minimize the media coverage it received, it was sorely mistaken. I hadn’t quite finished my breakfast on the Tuesday morning following, when media began calling; it didn’t stop all day long. By Wednesday morning, we found that news of this decision had been reported in the U.S., England, Italy, Germany, Russia, India and Pakistan. Reuters picked up the story, so it’s probable that it was reported elsewhere as well.

The reasons for international interest are no doubt diverse; the politics of whales and whaling on the international stage are byzantine. Most developed-world countries continue to oppose whaling and support the International Whaling Commission ban, so seeing Canada move to reduce protection for humpbacks would be newsworthy in that context. Our lackluster progress on our commitments under the Convention on Biodiversity is also getting the spotlight, so a decision that appears contrary to the purpose of the Species at Risk Act, the main vehicle for delivering our CBD commitments, is bound to attract attention—just not the sort of attention Canada has historically attracted.