NEWS

Humpback whale's 'threatened' status amid Northern Gateway concerns

04/22/2014 11:03 EDT | Updated 06/22/2014 05:59 EDT
The Canadian government is trying to reduce the protection of humpback whales off the coast of B.C. under the Species at Risk Act as the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline threatens to turn the whales' habitat into a major oil shipping corridor.

The move comes as the government readies for a decision on the approval of the pipeline, which would feed oil onto a tanker shipping route that overlaps with what environmental groups describe as "critical habitat" for the whale.

Environement  Minister Leona Aglukkaq, with advice from Fisheries Minister Gail Shea, is recommending that the Northern Pacific population of humpback whales be downgraded from "threatened" to "species of special concern." The recommendation for the change to the Species at Risk Act was published in the Canada Gazette Saturday.

The whale population has increased "significantly" since it was first listed as threatened in 2005, said a statement supporting the recommendation. It added that a 2011 independent assessment showed the whale's population growth rates have also increased.

Karen Wristen, executive director of the Living Oceans Society, said the decision "has absolutely no basis in science and is simply a political move to clear the way to approve the pipeline."

The downgrade would mean that the government would no longer have to designate critical habitat for the whale's recovery, Wristen said.

Currently, that designated critical habitat consists of areas near Kitimat, B.C. – the proposed western end of the Northern Gateway pipeline – where the whales feed and rear their young in the spring and summer.

The federal government is expected to decide before the end of June whether to approve or reject the proposed pipeline. A report of a joint review panel recommended in December that the government approve the project subject to 209 conditions.

If the pipeline goes ahead, the whales' feeding and breeding areas are expected to be a major corridor for oil tanker traffic.

"Ships were one of the specific things that were mentioned by …scientists as being a very high hazard to the whales for their recovery," Wristen said. "The danger is of course that the ships will strike them physically and kill them."

Concerns over oil spills

Scientists involved in the recovery strategy for the whales also cited the potential for the whales to be harmed by toxic oil spills.

There are also concerns, Wristen added, that noise generated by ships would disrupt the whales' feeding and their ability to care for their young.

"Without the habitat, they can't be expected to thrive," she said.

Wristen said while the population of whales has increased since they were protected from hunting, it's not clear how current populations compare to pre-hunting populations.

Scientists are also in the process of researching whether there are several distinct sub-species within the whale populations that need individual protection in order to maintain a healthy level of genetic diversity, Wristen said.

In January, the Living Oceans Society, along with Ecojustice, ForestEthics Advocacy and the Raincoast Conservation Foundation, launched a lawsuit attempting to block cabinet approval of the pipeline. They argued that the report being used as the basis for approval was flawed, in part because it failed to consider protections for the humpback whale required under the Act.

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