05/06/2014 05:19 EDT | Updated 07/06/2014 05:59 EDT

There's No "Action" in the Killer Whale Action Plan

It seems that the federal government decided to leave the "action" out of its killer whale draft action plan. The result is a vague, disappointing plan that is legally and scientifically inadequate to meet four key recovery outcomes.

In this July 2005 photo provided by Canada's Department of Oceans and Fisheries, a transient killer whale breaches off the coast of British Columbia. Killer whale experts in Canada and the United States are working on research that could conclude that mammal-eating whales in the North Pacific should be a separate species. Now called transients, some researchers are referring to them as

Two years ago Ecojustice celebrated a landmark win for British Columbia's iconic Northern and Southern Resident killer whales. Now it's time to turn our eye to practical business of protecting the whales and the critical habitat they need to survive and recover.

After years of waiting, we were pleased to see the Department of Fisheries and Oceans release its draft action plan for the Northern and Southern Resident killer whales in March. Under the Species at Risk Act, an action plan is intended to ensure the implementation of recovery measures -- essentially, it's where the rubber hits the road. An inadequate or unimplemented action plan may inevitably result in a failure to recover the species.

Unfortunately, it seems that the federal government decided to leave the "action" out of its killer whale draft action plan. The result is a vague, disappointing plan that is legally and scientifically inadequate to meet four key recovery outcomes:

  • Ensure that resident killer whales have an adequate and accessible food supply to allow recovery;
  • Ensure that chemical and biological pollutants do not prevent the recovery of resident killer whale populations;
  • Ensure that disturbance from human activities does not prevent the recovery of resident killer whales;
  • Protect critical habitat for resident killer whales and identify additional areas for critical habitat designation and protection.

Particularly alarming is the plan's silence on two major threats to killer whale survival and recovery: Shipping traffic and oil spills.

The terms "shipping" and "tankers" do not appear in the draft action plan at all. It's a shocking omission, considering well-publicized plans to twin Kinder Morgan's TransMountain pipeline and increase ship traffic out of the Port of Vancouver and directly through the Strait of Georgia, part of the Southern Resident killer whales' critical habitat.

The plan also makes no mention of the catastrophic threat of an oil spill in the whales' critical habitat, even though the proposed Kinder Morgan expansion would dramatically increase tanker traffic -- to the tune of 400+ tankers per year -- through Burrard Inlet and the Strait of Georgia.

We need to look no further than the Exxon Valdez disaster and its effects on killer whales for a cautionary tale. One Alaskan pod is the living legacy of a spill that unleashed millions of gallons of oil into Alaska's coastal waters 25 years ago. Since surfacing in the massive slick left behind by the tanker, the pod has been unable to reproduce or recruit calves. One by one, the pod members are dying off, and scientists say the pod has no chance for recovery

Simply put, this draft action plan is not good enough. And unless concrete and meaningful action is taken to protect the whales and their critical habitat, they are unlikely to survive and recover.

The good news is that there's still time to make it better.

That's why Ecojustice, along with the David Suzuki Foundation, Georgia Strait Alliance, Raincoast Conservation Foundation and the Wilderness Committee, have submitted extensive comments on the draft plan.

By getting involved at this stage, Ecojustice and these conservation groups hope to help improve the plan before it is finalized. It's not a splashy new lawsuit, but rather a subtle piece of work that requires our collective legal and scientific expertise.

Stay tuned to see what happens next. In the meantime, CLICK HERE to read more about Ecojustice's work to protect killer whales.

This post was written by Ecojustice staff lawyer Margot Venton. Ecojustice is one of Canada's leading charities using the law to protect and restore Canada's environment. Learn more at


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