Our Efforts to Save the Whales May Be ‘Too Little, Too Late’

Both Canada and the US have failed to protect the endangered southern resident killer whale, whose population today is 74.

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Oct 10 2018, 4:56pm

Image: Flickr/Mike Charest

Canada has failed to protect its southern resident killer whales, and it was only until they "declined to near extinction" that the government took action, says a damning report by the country's environment watchdog. In the US, too, environmentalists have criticized President Trump’s inadequate response.

In the report, Canada’s Environment Commissioner Julie Gelfand says that “for over a decade, the government was not proactive in using the tools available and enacting fishing and shipping regulations that would have afforded orcas, right whales, and other animals the support and protection they need to survive.”

The report—published on October 2—came just days after a study published in Science suggested that levels of the contaminant polychlorinated biphenyls may lead to the disappearance of half of the world’s populations of killer whales, also known as orcas, from the most heavily contaminated areas within 30-50 years. The waters in the Pacific Northeast are among the locations most at risk.

“Both [Canada and US] governments have had ample time to do what’s necessary to recover these animals, but they haven’t done that,” said Chris Genovali, executive director of the Rain Conservation Foundation over the phone.

Gelfand’s report says the federal government has implemented some measures to reduce threats to the southern resident killer whale. These threats include environmental contamination, vessel noise and disturbance, and commercial fishing—particularly of Chinook salmon, which make up 90 percent of an orca’s diet.

Though the southern resident killer whale was first listed in 2003 as endangered under Canada’s Species at Risk Act, it was not until 2017 that the federal government finalized an action plan to support and protect its recovery. In 2003, the southern resident killer whale population was 82; today, it’s 74.

The report noted that measures were put in place to limit commercial salmon fishing, such as a 25-35 percent harvest reduction and area closures to address the scarcity of Chinook salmon during the 2018 salmon fishing season.

As well, intergovernmental collaboration to address marine vessels’ threats had improved since the announcement of Canada’s $1.5 billion Oceans Protection Plan (OPP) in 2016.

Gelfand fears the measures may be “too little, too late.”

Since southern resident killer whales spend most of the year nestled between Vancouver Island and northern Washington, and are known to roam the Pacific coast from northern California to southeast Alaska, they are effectively a cross-border species that require cross-border attention. Efforts over the past decade on both sides of the border have been lackluster.

The US’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) listed the species under the Endangered Species Act in 2005. Three years later, NOAA completed a federal recovery plan. Then, in 2015, NOAA introduced an additional five-year action plan under the “Species in the Spotlight” initiative, which considers the southern resident killer whale among species most at risk of extinction in the near future.

According to a 2017 report, NOAA has introduced regulations that prohibit vessels from approaching within 200 yards of the whales, leveraged salmon habitat restoration, and conducted research to observe the conditions of the whales.

“Although the recovery plan is a decade old, the measures taken by the US federal government haven’t been aggressive enough to tackle the problem,” Jason Colby, associate professor of environmental history at the University of Victoria and author of Orca: How We Came to Know and Love the Ocean’s Greatest Predator, told me over the phone.

“There’s a lot of blame to go around,” he added.

Now, the seemingly emergent vulnerable state of the endangered southern resident killer whale has gained international attention.

Read More: Researchers Had 'No Idea' Killer Whales Could Dive This Deep

The world sympathized with a grieving killer whale mother, J35, who carried her dead calf more than 1,000 miles through the Salish Sea; and we’ve watched in anguish as cross-border emergency teams attempted to shoot the critically ill killer whale, J50, with doses of antibiotics. She is now presumed dead.

“All the mourning and grieving for the southern residents is very cathartic, but it’s devoid of all meaning unless we turn it into immediate action,” Genovali said.

Misty MacDuffee, a biologist at Raincoast Conservation, says the closure of marine, commercial, and recreational Chinook fisheries is now the most effective way to support recovery of the southern resident killer whale.

These measures were addressed in a ongoing lawsuit filed in September by environmental law firm Ecojustice, on behalf of Raincoast Conservation and five other conservation groups, against the Canadian federal government. It asks the federal court to review the government’s failure to recommend an emergency order to protect the whales under the Species at Risk Act.

According to the act, “a competent minister must make the recommendation if he or she is of the opinion that the species faces imminent threats to its survival or recovery.”

“These measures should have been implemented long before now,” MacDuffee told me. “It shouldn’t have taken a crisis of this scale for us to realize this.”

In August, the federal government’s failure to consider its obligations to the southern resident killer whales under the Species at Risk Act helped to quash the Trans Mountain expansion pipeline. The project would have tripled the capacity of the existing pipeline that runs between Edmonton and Vancouver, increasing tanker traffic that poses a threat to the whales.

South of the border, the Seattle-based Center for Biological Diversity sued the Trump administration in August for failure to protect the species’ critical habitat under the Endangered Species Act.

Colby says the lack of action by NOAA has pressured Washington State to step up and take matters into its own hands.

In March, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee used an executive order to create the Southern Resident Killer Whale Task Force to protect both the whales and Chinook salmon.

The task force released a draft plan last month, and the final report will be made available on November 16.

Recommendations include the passing an executive order in favour of the controversial Lower Snake River dam removal—a chain a four dams thought to be blocking one of the West Coast’s major salmon runs.

“Just by virtue, the actions that both governments have taken of late show that they recognize the situation is desperate,” said Genovali.

“There’s no time to waste anymore. The time is now.”