Today, after a precedent setting ruling by a B.C. federal court judge, there is some real hope for B.C.’s resident killer whales. It is far too infrequent that the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) is actually forced to face the music for its inability to promote and enforce protection of our marine species at risk, but today, DFO must hear the music loud and clear as it is being held accountable for its failure to protect the critical habitat of our orcas. A WHAHOO is in order as well as a high five to the judge and a thank you to the lawyers at Ecojustice  for all of their hard work.

To say that B.C.’s orcas have had a tough go would be putting it very mildly. Being listed as endangered (southern population) and threatened (northern pop.) gives a good idea of just how at risk these majestic creatures truly are, but just exactly how they were going to recover and thrive with weak protection measures and increasing threats to their habitat has been a concerning question left unanswered. It will remain unanswered until DFO turns this ruling into regulatory action to protect each component of the orcas critical habitat, but for now at least there is clarity about what that habitat is. Critical habitat is all biological and geophysical features necessary for the species’ survival such as access to prey, clean and noise-free water, and a home free from undue interference.

The key components of the orcas’ critical habitat have been under significant stress. Chinook salmon, their prey of choice, have struggled in past years, leaving the orcas hungry going into winter months, as well as contaminated from the poisons the salmon absorb from all the junk released in their rivers, streams and our oceans. Increasing underwater noise, vessel traffic, pollution and a myriad of other disturbances, impact water quality and audibility, exerting a lot of stress on the orcas. New and emerging threats like potential spills from tankers and changing oceans adds an even greater need to ensure the waters that the orcas call home are protected.

 Orcas appeared more prominently on Greenpeace’s radar when, the year before the lawsuit began, a barge tipped its load, and spilled diesel fuel, into Robson Bight ecological reserve. A reserve that was created for the northern resident orcas that use the beaches to rub their bellies and socialize. This was, indeed, a true violation of their critical habitat. Not surprisingly, the government was not quick to respond when we called for an investigation into the status of the fuel-laden truck sitting as a ticking time bomb at the bottom of the reserve. It took a lot of persuasion, amazing Greenpeace and Living Oceans Society supporters, whale enthusiasts and concerned Canadians to join together to push the government to finally investigate and raise the fuel truck from their habitat before another spill happened. This left many of us wondering what it meant for the protection of other less well-known species at risk if the iconic orcas of B.C. didn’t even get the utmost attention from the feds when their habitat was coated in diesel fuel.

 Well after today, all marine species listed under the Species at Risk Act will be afforded legal protection on all aspects of their habitat. With births outnumbering deaths this year in the northern pop., there is not only new life but new hope for the future of our orcas.

Check out the press release sent out today with our partner organizations and Ecojustice with a quote from our very own Stephanie Goodwin.


Decisive killer whale court win offers hope for at-risk species

Federal Court rules DFO failed to protect B.C. resident killer whale critical habitat

VANCOUVER — Conservation groups, represented by Ecojustice, have won a landmark decision (see attached) in the Federal Court which ruled today that the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) has failed to adequately protect critical habitat of B.C.’s resident killer whales.

The win ensures stronger legal protection for all of Canada's marine endangered species.

“This is a victory not just for the resident killer whales, but for the more than 90 other marine species listed under the federal Species at Risk Act,” said Margot Venton, Ecojustice staff lawyer. “The court has confirmed that the government must legally protect all aspects of critical habitat from destruction. Now DFO needs to obey its own law.”

 The conservation coalition, made up of nine leading environmental groups, alleged that DFO failed to legally protect important aspects of critical habitat for southern and northern resident killer whales — such as availability of salmon and the quality of the marine environment. 

“The abundance of salmon, chemical pollution and physical and acoustic disturbance have all been identified as key threats to the critical habitat of resident killer whales,” said Misty MacDuffee of Raincoast Conservation. “The court has confirmed that DFO is legally required to protect these features. Considering the whales in fishing plans is a first step toward this implementation.”

Critical habitat is defined as the habitat endangered or threatened species need to survive and recover.  

 “It remains to be seen what steps DFO will take to protect killer whale habitat, but immediate action is necessary,” said Stephanie Goodwin of Greenpeace. “With the Canadian government currently considering a proposal for oil supertankers through critical habitat, B.C.’s killer whales need the government to take action today to ensure they have salmon to eat, clean water to live in, and protection from noise pollution and physical disturbance.”

 "We're very pleased with the court's decision, which sends a strong message to DFO to do a better job in the future," said Susan Howatt, campaigns director for Sierra Club B.C.

The resident killer whales are made up of two distinct populations that live in B.C. waters year-round. The southern resident killer whales are listed as “endangered” with only about 85 members remaining, while approximately 220 “threatened” northern residents survive. Both species are listed under Canada’s Species at Risk Act, which requires DFO to create plans for their recovery and protection.

In 2008, DFO issued a Protection Statement that sought to legally protect critical habitat using voluntary guidelines and non-binding laws and policies. In 2009, Ottawa issued a Protection Order for Resident killer whale critical habitat that ignored the biological aspects of critical habitat, including water quality, noise pollution and food supply.  The lawsuit challenged the lawfulness of both the Protection Statement and the Protection Order. 

For more information on killer whales, please refer to the attached backgrounder.

 Ecojustice represented David Suzuki Foundation, Dogwood Initiative, Environmental Defence, Greenpeace, Georgia Strait Alliance, International Fund for Animal Welfare, Raincoast Conservation, Sierra Club of BC, and the Wilderness Committee during the proceedings.