04/23/2014 01:42 EDT | Updated 04/23/2014 01:59 EDT

Humpback Whale Status Downgrade Defended By Biologists

Biologists are defending the science behind the Canadian government's recent decision to downgrade North Pacific humpback whales from the "threatened" species list.

The move is based on recommendations by an independent federal advisory committee. The humpback population off the B.C. coast is growing strongly and no longer requires protection under the "threatened" category, said the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC).

Some environmental groups and the federal NDP are concerned that the downgrading will make it easier for two major oilsands project proposals to get the green light. If approved, the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline and Kinder Morgan expansion would increase tanker traffic in B.C. waters.

This month's reclassification means the whales' critical habitat — including areas near Kitimat, B.C., the proposed western end of the Northern Gateway — no longer needs to be protected. The humpback is now listed as a "species of special concern" under the Species at Risk Act.

Andrew Trites, a COSEWIC member and director of marine mammal research at the University of British Columbia’s Fisheries Centre, told The Vancouver Sun that research shows the humpback population is increasing all over the B.C. coastline.

"I feel that unfortunately often marine mammals are used as pawns or poster children in these exercises," he told the newspaper. “We’ve done a lot of right things to see them (the humpback) recover and it’s being spun as though they’re in grave risk, and that’s not the case.”

The federal NDP questioned the Conservative government's agenda.

"The Conservatives are bending over backwards to please their friends in the oil industry and pave the way for Northern Gateway,” said B.C. MP Nathan Cullen in a news release.

But in a detailed explanation of how COSEWIC makes an assessment, Victoria conservation biologist Brett Favaro said: "The outcry in this case is misguided."

In a blog post, Favaro said that the government and the general public have no influence on COSEWIC reports.

"There is no evidence that the down-listing of the North Pacific population of humpback whales was due to political gamesmanship — rather, it represents a conservation success story," wrote Favaro.

However, he emphasized that the humpback's recovery is "not an excuse to become complacent" because the population is still only at half its numbers compared to 100 years ago.

Trites told The Sun the status can be revisited if future research shows humpbacks are again in danger.

Favaro also acknowledged "many examples" of the federal government failing to meet its obligations for species at risk. B.C. environmental groups sued Ottawa for not taking action to protect four endangered species, including the humpback whale. A judge sided with the groups in February.

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