The Government’s Plan to Help Endangered Whales Lacks Action

Federal decisions put orcas at an increased risk of extinction despite Fisheries and Oceans Canada’s Recovery Strategy

Fisheries and Oceans Canada have been tracking the decline of killer whales living off of the West Coast of Canada. The species has been listed as endangered for over a decade. (Flickr/J. Maughn)

Killer whales residing off the coast of B.C. and California are listed as an endangered species due to dwindling food population, noise pollution, and high levels of human-caused toxins and pollutants.

According to Fisheries and Oceans Canada, the Northeast Pacific southern-resident killer whale has been listed as endangered through the Species at Risk Act since 2003. The department’s recovery strategy currently lists four ways to aid in the recovery of the species: protecting their habitat and their prey’s habitat, ensuring an adequate food supply, and making sure that chemical pollutants and human activity don’t prevent the recovery of the species.

Unfortunately, these objectives lack specificity and don’t offer any real solution or action plan to recover the species.

Killer whales use echolocation to navigate their surroundings and find their prey. Echolocation works by making sounds that bounce off of objects to determine their location in a given space. With so much extra noise coming from oil tankers and other boats, the sound waves and echoes used in echolocation are increasingly difficult to trace, leaving orcas with an unclear perception of their surroundings and unable to communicate with their pod.

Considering the approval of Kinder Morgan, Fisheries and Oceans Canada’s third objective to “ensure that disturbances from human activities does not prevent the recovery of resident killer whales” is already failing. The increased risk of oil spills from the pipeline threaten all marine life in the area. Spills aside, the pipeline expansion will increase tanker traffic, effectively creating more noise pollution from idle engines and tankers moving along the coast.

A recent study showed just how much human toxins and contaminants are contributing to the decline of the southern-resident killer whales. Researchers collected 26 samples of exhaled breath from eight male orcas, seven female orcas, and six orcas of undetermined sex between 2006 and 2009. The study found “an array of bacteria and fungi in breath and [surface microlayer] samples … as well as microorganisms that exhibited resistance to multiple antimicrobial agents.”

Objective two of the recovery strategy is to “ensure that chemical and biological pollutants do not prevent the recovery of resident killer whale populations.” To do this, the report indicates it will “reduce the introduction into the environment of pesticides and other chemical compounds that have the potential to adversely affect the health of killer whales and/or their prey.” It goes on to say that “mitigation must occur on scales that range from local consumer to the international level, as many pollutants originate from sources outside of Canada.”

Wastewater treatment plants vary among municipalities. Fisheries and Oceans Canada should implement a standard for thorough treatment to effectively reduce contaminants from wastewater, especially in areas of close proximity to at-risk marine wildlife.

To date, whale-hunting is prohibited without a license, and guidelines for whale-watching are in place to help protect the species. Guidelines are great when they’re universally followed, but unfortunately, they rarely are.

More strict regulations for whale-watching are set to come into effect in the spring, Fisheries Minister Dominic LeBlanc told reporters outside of the House of Commons last month. Boats will be required to stay 200 metres away from any southern-resident killer whales they encounter in Canadian waters and 100 metres away from all other marine mammals encountered.

Regulations and policies play an important role in reducing adverse effects to whales. Fisheries and Oceans Canada needs to get the ball rolling by implementing the necessary policies and regulations to protect orcas and put more serious punishments in place for larger corporations and communities that are not currently held accountable for their actions as often as they should be.

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