Ecojustice Blog – Nature Posted on January 30, 2018 (updated: January 31, 2018)

Why we need an emergency order to protect Southern Resident killer whales

Dyna TuytelLawyer
Southern Resident killer whale
Miles Ritter, via Flickr

Feds must act now to save the world’s 76 remaining Southern Resident killer whales.

Genetically and culturally distinct from other orcas, Southern Resident killer whales spend most of their time hunting in the Pacific Northwest’s Salish Sea— waters that have historically been abundant in the whales’ primary food source, Chinook salmon.

This rich marine ecosystem has provided the essentials for the Southern Resident killer whales to thrive and develop complex social structures and methods of communication.

But today, the whales, the salmon, and the sea they call home face serious threats.

That is why we are asking the federal government to take immediate action to protect Southern Resident killer whales.

On behalf of David Suzuki Foundation, Georgia Strait Alliance, Natural Resources Defense Council, Raincoast Conservation Foundation and World Wildlife Fund Canada, Ecojustice is calling on the government to make an emergency order to protect this population of orcas.

The five groups filed a petition to Minister of Fisheries and Oceans Dominic LeBlanc and Minister of Environment and Climate Change Catherine McKenna, the Ministers responsible for the Southern Residents, today, urging them to recommend that Cabinet issues an emergency order under the Species at Risk Act.

Emergency orders are an important tool for implementing urgent and targeted protections for a species at risk.

According to the Act, an emergency order may, in the case of an aquatic species:

(i) identify habitat that is necessary for the survival or recovery of the species in the area to which the emergency order relates, and

(ii) include provisions requiring the doing of things that protect the species and that habitat and provisions prohibiting activities that may adversely affect the species and that habitat

The Ministers have the power to recommend an emergency order if they are of the opinion that a species is facing imminent threats to its survival or recovery. Cabinet then decides whether to issue an order.

Please, join our fight to protect the Southern Residents by sending your own letter today.

For a better picture of how an emergency order would protect the orcas, read on to learn about the three main threats they face:

‘An incredible species that we have devastated’

In a talk this past fall, award-winning author David R. Boyd bluntly summed up the effect human activity has had on the Southern Resident killer whales.

“This is an incredible species that we have devastated,” he told an audience at Vancouver’s Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia. “We took more than 50 Southern Resident killer whales in the 1960s and 70s, captured them and took them around the world to display in aquariums. That shattered this population. They’ve never really recovered.”

Boyd listed three main contemporary threats to the Southern Residents: declining Chinook salmon populations, pollution in the water, and noise and physical “harassment” caused by vessel traffic.

The lack of available Chinook salmon is perhaps the most urgent threat to Southern Resident killer whales. In 2017, we saw disturbing evidence of how salmon decline is causing stress and malnutrition in the orca population.

A study published in June 2017 linked “low reproductive success” to “nutritional stress” during years when salmon were less plentiful.  Researchers have also witnessed Southern Residents showing signs of malnourishment, then disappearing soon after, presumed dead. Most recently, in September 2017, researchers shared the devastating news that a young male had passed away. According to reports, the two-and-a-half-year-old was showing signs of malnutrition when he was last seen near the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

Further down the food chain, there are signs of another serious threat to orca survival.  According to the Georgia Strait Alliance, toxic contamination can be found at the lowest rungs of the marine food chain: zooplankton. When larger fish eat these tiny animals, the concentration of chemicals builds in a process called bioaccumulation.

As a result, the Georgia Strait Alliance says on its website, “Orcas who live in the Pacific Northwest are some of the most contaminated marine mammals on Earth.”

The effects of this contamination are intensified when the whales cannot find enough to eat and they begin to metabolize the contaminants stored in their blubber.

Finally, orcas are threatened by physical and acoustic disturbance from vessel traffic.

Last October, my colleague Margot and I went to the Federal Court of Appeal to argue that Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline expansion would pose unacceptable risks to the Southern Resident killer whales by increasing tanker traffic seven-fold.

Research shows that the noise from vessels can hinder killer whales’ ability to communicate and find food, and the physical presence of boats can deter them from foraging.

“Each time a whale has to disrupt what it is doing to respond to a vessel, it is replacing a critical life process (e.g., resting, feeding, mating) with ‘vigilance,’ ”  explains an expert report that scientist and professor Chris Clark prepared for Raincoast Conservation Foundation in 2015.  “Its attention is switched from engaging in a naturally beneficial activity to something that is an unnatural distraction.”

When these interruptions occur during bouts of feeding, the consequences can be substantial – especially when the whales are already facing shortages of prey.

According to the report, killer whales can “spend 18 to 25 per cent less time feeding in the presence of boats than in their absence.”

An emergency order for a population in crisis

With only 76 remaining members, Southern Resident killer whales are in an extremely vulnerable state.

A study release by Raincoast Conservation Foundation in 2017 suggests that, unless the government intervenes to address planned expansions in shipping, ongoing contamination and the drop in salmon stocks, the Southern Residents population will continue to decline.

We are asking Minister LeBlanc and Minister McKenna to recommend an emergency order because we recognize the severity and urgency of the threats to this population. But we would not have sent them our petition if we did not think it was possible to successfully deal with these threats and ensure the Southern Resident killer whales can continue to survive for generations to come.

One of the most important steps we can take to keep this population alive is to use the law to protect them. An emergency order under the Species at Risk Act is a crucial way of doing this.

We have given the Ministers until March 1 to respond to our petition. We hope that within that time they will commit to taking action to protect the Southern Resident killer whales with an emergency order.

And if their answer comes up short, we are prepared to continue our fight for this remarkable species, for the salmon it relies upon, and for the ocean they both call home.

Urge the government to take steps to protect Southern Resident killer whales. Send your letter to Minister LeBlanc and Minister McKenna today.

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