Victory for the Whales Habitat Protection Mandated

B. McPherson

A federal court of appeal in Canada has ruled that the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) had failed in its duty to protect killer whales (orcas) by not protecting crucial habitat for them. Last year EcoJustice brought suit against the DFO for failing this duty and the lower court agreed with them. The decision of the lower court was appealed by the DFO.

“The court ruled that the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans must legally protect all aspects of killer whale critical habitat — including their food supply and the quality of their marine environment.” EcoJustice

The iconic black and white whales have two main populations on the coast of British Columbia, the northern and the southern. The northern group is made up of 264 individuals and is considered threatened. The southern group is now reduced to 87 and listed as endangered. The southern group travels mainly in the Strait of Georgia south to Juan de Fuca Strait. Both are listed under the Species At Risk Act (SARA).
Looking at the surface of the water gives little indication of the changes that have come to the coast with increasing human activity. Threats to these top predators are numerous.

·         Lack of food – orcas are fish eaters and the populations of salmon and other fish have declined steeply. Whales need layers of fat in order to survive in the cold coastal waters.

·         Disturbances – noise from boats, seismic surveys, “bangers” to scare predation on open net industrial farming, military sonar all contribute to disorientation and increased difficulty in locating ever dwindling fish stocks.

·         Toxins – runoff from agricultural operations, sewage dumping and accumulation of toxic chemicals in the body fat can disrupt metabolic functions.  Chemicals used in the open net fisheries leak into the surrounding ocean waters.

·         Oil spills – with increased shipping of petroleum products from BC terminals, the danger of an oil spill increases. Orcas do not avoid oil slicks and can develop chemical pneumonia from breathing petroleum fumes. When the Exxon Valdes polluted Alaskan shores with an oil spill, the population of orcas plummeted.

The Canadian federal government has a window in which to appeal the latest judgement against the DFO. After two judgements against it, one would hope that they would start working on a way to save these magnificent, intelligent creatures from extinction due to human activities.

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