VANCOUVER - In the midst of the heated debate over oil tankers off the coast of British Columbia, the federal environment minister has proposed improving the status of North Pacific humpback whales from threatened to "special concern."
The whales have played a starring role in the campaign against oil pipelines and opponents accused the federal government Tuesday of removing a hurdle to the proposed multibillion-dollar Northern Gateway (TSX:ENB) pipeline.
"What we're seeing is that the government is stripping the humpbacks of legal protection at the very time that the Enbridge pipeline and tankers project is posing a serious threat to their recovery and survival," said Caitlyn Vernon, of Sierra Club BC.
But the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada, or COSEWIC, an independent group of scientists responsible for assessments, first recommended the improvement in status three years ago.
A federal official said the group was even asked to reconsider, to ensure the science was sound. Last fall, the recommendation again was to make the change.
"The decision that the government has made is based fundamentally on the scientific advice we got from COSEWIC," said Trevor Swerdfager, a biologist and assistant deputy minister of ecosystems and fisheries management operations at Fisheries and Oceans Canada.
The timing was not related to any outside projects or pressures, he said.
"We didn't take this out of context. We didn't ask COSEWIC to work in a different way. We didn't skew the results in any way, shape or form," he said.
COSEWIC reclassified the whales on its own list in May 2011. Provincially, they are a blue-listed species, which means they're "of special concern" and United States authorities are also considering upgrading its status for the whales.
After being hunted to near extinction in the early 20th century, biologists estimate the North Pacific population now consists of more than 18,000 animals, not including calves.
"We look at the scientific and biological information on extinction risk. That's really all we focus on," said Marty Leonard, committee chairwoman and a biologist at Dalhousie University.
Biologist and committee member Randall Reeves said the marine mammals panel did a rigorous review of the science.
"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," he wrote in an email from Asia, where he is currently conducting research.
Special concern is still a risk category, and the committee said that while the population is increasing, the whales have not returned to pre-whaling levels.
And the whales still face threats from ship strikes and entanglement in fishing gear.
The Pacific humpback was central to a lawsuit brought against the federal government by B.C. environmental groups trying to force it to abide by the Species At Risk legislation.
In February, a Federal Court judge issued a damning decision that found the environment minister and the fisheries minister both broke the law by failing to abide by the Species at Risk Act.
It is also one of the reasons environmental groups have cited in asking the Federal Court to overturn a federal review panel recommendation in favour of the Northern Gateway project.
The reclassification would remove the legal obligation under the Species at Risk Act for the federal government to identify and protect critical humpback habitat.
But as a species of special concern, there remain protections under the Fisheries Act, Swerdfager said. Fisheries and Oceans must also come up with a management plan within three years.
"This is actually a bit of good news. We've got a species that is on a positive trend, population-wise. It's not often that we're in position to say actually, we've made some progress," he said.