Canada wants to downgrade humpback whales from “threatened” to “species of special concern.” This means the government is no longer required to protect the whale’s critical habitat under the Species At Risk Act, removing the risk of legal battles with environmental groups.
The proposed change comes just two months before the government announces a decision on the approval for the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline, which would feed oil onto a busy tanker shipping route that will overlap with the whales’ critical habitat. We’re talking about half a million barrels of oil a year.
The recommendation by the Minister of the Environment was published in the Canada Gazette this past weekend, and in a statement supporting the reclassification, the government says that analyses of the Northern Pacific population of humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) “indicate an increasing trend in abundance.”
According to the assessment -- made by the independent advisory body Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) in 2011 -- there's been no evidence of population decline since the 1960s when commercial whaling ended. The population has increased about 4 percent a year since the early 1990s, and according to COSEWIC, the population increased by more than 50 percent over the last three generations. It now consists of more than 18,000 non-calf individuals.
The whales have been listed as “threatened” since 2005, based on a 2003 COSEWIC assessment. “This is actually a good news story,” says Andrew Trites of the University of British Columbia and a member of the COSEWIC committee. “We’re seeing more humpback whales in B.C. than we’ve ever seen before.” They feed on both coasts of Canada, and in the Pacific, they extend to northwestern Alaska.
Critics disagree, saying how the move is political, and not based in science. The New Democratic Party has accused the government of overriding public concerns "to please their friends in the oil industry,” Reuters reports. The proposed western end of the pipeline near Kitimat, B.C., is where the whales feed and rear their young. “The proposed change in status for humpback whales would place them in jeopardy, particularly given the impending threats,” Chris Genovali of Raincoast Conservation Foundation tells Vancouver Sun, referring to the number of arriving tankers increasing from 8 to 28 a month.
"Ships were one of the specific things that were mentioned by… scientists as being a very high hazard to the whales for their recovery," Karen Wristen of the Living Oceans Society says. "The danger is of course that the ships will strike them physically and kill them." Potential spills and excessive noise are concerns as well. For now, however, Trites thinks hypotheticals shouldn’t affect the decision to downgrade the whales. He tells CBC: “We can only change things that are real.”
Committee member Randall Reeves tells Toronto Star: “We have a responsibility as scientists and conservationists to call things as we see them, and this includes not only flagging situations where a species or population is at increased risk from human activities, but also acknowledging when (all too rarely) a wildlife population’s condition is holding its own or improving.”
Responses will be accepted for 30 days afterwards. The change would go into effect when approved by the Governor In Council, and a management plan must be developed within three years.
Image: Robert Schwemmer, NOAA National Marine Sanctuaries