04/03/2014 05:23 EDT | Updated 06/03/2014 05:59 EDT

Canada Should Move Fast To Protect Endangered Whales

Let's start with the good news. For the most part, whales in Canada's waters are recovering. North Atlantic right whales, once hunted to the brink of extinction, have almost doubled in number. There are more Fin whales and Humpbacks in Canada's Pacific waters every year. Just last summer, for the first time in 62 years, two Pacific Right Whales were spotted off B.C.'s coast.

Canada shares these whales with the rest of the world, and so these signs -- the result of both national and international conservation efforts -- are extremely encouraging. But now the hard truth: the slow recovery of whales from near decimation is as fragile as it is hopeful. A step back from the edge of extinction is still only a step away from it. Whether whales will continue to flourish in Canada's waters, and in our world's oceans, is still an open question.

Bordered by three oceans, with the longest shoreline in the world, Canada is poised to answer it. Emerging research and thought-leadership on our coasts is showing us how by focusing attention on one of the things that whales need most: quiet.

Our eyes simply don't work as well underwater as they do on land. But sound does. It travels much further through water than air. This is why whales, extremely social mammals, use 'echolocation' (sound waves and echoes) to communicate, navigate and find food.

The challenge is that whales in Canada's waters are at risk of being drowned out by escalating levels of ocean noise from shipping, navy sonar, shoreline construction, and seismic exploration. But this need not be the case.

We already have the technology to build quieter ships and to retrofit existing ones to cut down on noise. As it turns out, quieter ships are more efficient ships, which means we're also saving money. Working with partners on Canada's Pacific Coast, WWF is looking at other ways to find solutions for quieter oceans. Reducing port fees for ships that meet smart sound standards, is one example.

But industry alone can only achieve so much. Governments have a role to play, and there are a number of ways in which the federal government could demonstrate leadership.

For example, Ocean Use Plans can establish zones where activities that create noise are restricted, especially during certain times of the year. This type of decision making can give industry the certainty it needs while protecting the species and habitat Canadians value. Setting regulated standards for noise pollution in our oceans can drive innovation for quieter technology -- an area where Canada can lead.

Also, as the Government develops its National Conservation Plan, there is an opportunity to better manage and protect areas of high conservation value through, for example, minimizing activities that create harmful levels of ocean noise.

Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) are a critical part of the solution. Placing areas off limit to exploitation and excessive use has proven time and again to be a powerful tool to protect and enhance life at sea. But if MPAs are to make a real difference, there must be lots of them; large areas in ecologically representative and connected networks that offer real protection from development activities with significant adverse impacts. At present, Canada does poorly with only a little more than 1 per cent of its marine waters protected to such standards.

Moreover, environmental assessments for large industrial development projects can (and should) require project proponents to monitor, adapt and in some cases suspend operations to protect against harmful underwater noise.

In Canada, we have every reason to take an international leadership position on this issue. There are deep cultural connections between whales and our coastal communities -- and economic ones too. Whale watching has grown exponentially in recent decades, part of a global $2.1 billion (U.S.) industry. For the people who live and work on Canada's coasts, and those who travel to experience the awe-inspiring and humbling presence of whales -- our responsibility to protect these creatures is unquestionable.

So is our ability. In Canada, we have seen shipping lanes moved, reserves established, and fishermen partner with conservationists, all for this goal. Protecting quiet ocean spaces will secure this legacy and the fragile recovery of some of Canada's most wondrous animals. The time to step up is now.


Whales In Action