Feds sued over refusal to protect resident killer whales

Environmental groups bring novel action demanding habitat be legally protected

Feature story - October 7, 2008
Environmental groups across Canada, including Greenpeace, hit the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) with a lawsuit today. Filed by lawyers with Ecojustice, the lawsuit alleges that DFO has failed to legally protect critical habitat of BC's most iconic marine mammals: the endangered Southern Resident and threatened Northern Resident Killer Whales.

Orca Trial

On September 10, 2008, without consulting killer whale scientists, DFO declined to issue an Order under SARA to protect the Resident Killer Whales' critical habitat from destruction. Instead, DFO has decided to rely on existing non-binding policies and voluntary guidelines, in addition to other poorly enforced laws to circumvent true safeguarding of these ailing species.

Frustrated by the federal government's failure to take steps under SARA to protect the orcas, the David Suzuki Foundation, Environmental Defence, Greenpeace Canada, the International Fund for Animal Welfare, the Raincoast Conservation Society and the Wilderness Committee have turned to the courts as a last resort. As the first lawsuit of its kind in Canada, the goal is to force the federal government to legally protect the critical habitat of all endangered species like the Southern Residents.

As critical habitat is the habitat that is necessary for the survival or recovery of a species-at-risk, the decision not to legally protect that of the orcas' leaves them increasingly vulnerable to growing threats found along B.C.'s coast. Declining salmon stocks, increased boat traffic, toxic contamination, and acoustic impacts from dredging, seismic testing and military sonar all threaten the orcas with extinction.

Poor regulation of areas cordoned off to protect some of their habitat, such as Robson Bight Ecological Reserve, mean that there exist few areas free from human disturbance and impact. A diesel spill within the boundaries of Robson Bight that took place last summer, led to contamination of the waters in which the Northern Residents were frequenting. Wreckage resting on the sea floor poses a potential for further damage to their habitat and their health. Full legal protection is needed in order to avoid similar occurrences in the future, and the establishment of marine reserves closed to extractive uses in order to allow these species and their ecosystem to recover.

The lawsuit follows a long struggle by the Killer Whale Recovery Team - independent scientists and government scientists tasked with preparing a Recovery Strategy for these orcas - to ensure that the recovery plan included information showing the orcas' critical habitat.