Fighting for emergency protections for Southern Resident killer whales

Raincoast Conservation Foundation et al. v. Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard et al.
Photo by Miles Ritter via Flickr
Program area – Nature Status: Closed
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In an effort to protect endangered Southern Resident killer whales, Ecojustice launched a lawsuit against the Minister of Environment and Climate Change and Minister of Fisheries and Oceans in September 2018.

On behalf of David Suzuki Foundation, Georgia Strait Alliance, Natural Resources Defense Council, Raincoast Conservation Foundation and World Wildlife Fund Canada, Ecojustice filed a case asking the Federal Court to force the ministers to recommend that cabinet issue an emergency order to protect the whales under the Species at Risk Act.

The filing came at a time when the Southern Residents’ crisis was on full display — in the immediate aftermath of J35’s famous “tour of grief,” during which the whale carried her dead calf for 17 days, and a mere week and a half before authorities declared J50, a four-year-old Southern Resident, presumed dead.

The case launch also followed more than seven months’ worth of concerted efforts to convince pressure the ministers into recommending the emergency protections, including a petition from Ecojustice and its clients, more than ten thousand letters from Ecojustice supporters to the Ministers, and local and national media coverage.

On Nov. 2, 2018, faced with pressure from both the lawsuit and the public, the federal government quietly released a decision not to issue an emergency order for the Southern Residents.

According to the announcement, the ministers had indeed recommended cabinet make the order — the outcome Ecojustice sought through litigation — but cabinet refused to issue the emergency protections.

With the recommendation already-made, Ecojustice discontinued the case.

As Canada’s largest environmental law charity, Ecojustice uses the power of the law to defend nature by going to court to protect and restore ecosystems and species at risk.

Southern Resident killer whales are a vital part of the Salish Sea ecosystem and an invaluable part of our cultures. They are also in crisis.

Genetically and culturally distinct from other orcas, the Southern Residents face three main threats to their survival:

  • Lack of Chinook salmon, the whales’ preferred prey
  • Acoustic and physical disturbance from noise
  • While we are pleased the ministers finally recommended issuing an emergency order, it is deeply disappointing that cabinet rejected what we believe to be the best tool to protect these whales.

    Looking ahead, we stress that the government remains legally responsible for protecting federal species at risk, including the Southern Resident killer whales.

    In the absence of an emergency order, this will mean drawing from a patchwork of legal tools to make sure the Southern Residents have legal, enforceable protections they need in order to survive and recover —  and doing so on an urgent timeline.

    Together with its clients, Ecojustice remains committed to holding the government accountable and making sure it meets its responsibility to protect these endangered orcas.

  • And contamination of the ecosystems where they live

Scientists agree that salmon shortages are the most urgent threat to the whales, leaving them at risk of malnutrition and even starvation.

Disturbance from vessels — including by recreational boaters, fishing boats, commercial whale watchers, ferries and shipping — also heightens this risk by interfering with the whales’ natural ability to hunt.

Key developments


The grandmother effect: How female Southern Resident killer whales take care of their families

Learn about “the grandmother effect” – and how you can take action today to protect endangered Southern Resident killer whales. Mot...

May 7, 2021

Press release

Canada’s recovery measures for endangered killer whales a positive step: Conservation groups

VANCOUVER — A coalition of six conservation groups commends the federal government’s new measures to support Southern Resident killer wh...

May 10, 2019


A promise is a promise: Keeping up the pressure to protect endangered killer whales

We’re closing our emergency order case, but the fight to protect Southern Resident killer whales is far from over. It was a bright Sept...

November 21, 2018

Press release

Statement: Conservation groups respond to decision not to issue emergency protections for endangered whales

VANCOUVER – The federal government announced today that it refuses to issue an emergency order to protect endangered killer whales under t...

November 2, 2018

Press release

STATEMENT: Ecojustice comments on presumed death of Southern Resident killer whale J50

VANCOUVER - Dyna Tuytel, a lawyer at Ecojustice, released the following statement in reaction to news that the four-year-old Southern Reside...

September 14, 2018

Press release

Conservation groups take ministers to court to protect endangered killer whales

VANCOUVER – Six conservation organizations are launching a new lawsuit aimed at protecting endangered Southern Resident killer whales. ...

September 5, 2018


See you in court: We’re suing to protect orcas

Despite imminent threats to the Southern Resident killer whales and our calls for urgent action, the Minister of Environment and Climate Cha...

September 5, 2018


Grieving mother highlights crisis for Southern Resident killer whales

For more than two weeks, the West Coast — and the world — has watched J35, a Southern Resident killer whale mother, carry her dead calf ...

August 3, 2018

Press release

Conservation groups put ministers on notice over Southern Resident killer whale protections

VANCOUVER - Conservation groups are putting Minister of Environment and Climate Change Catherine McKenna and Minister of Fisheries and Ocean...

April 5, 2018


Big picture: looking beyond politics to save Southern Resident killer whales

You can tell a lot about a Southern Resident killer whale from above. In my field work with the Coastal Ocean Research Institute, an Ocea...

March 27, 2018

Press release

Deadline passes for protection of endangered killer whales

Federal ministers fail to recommend emergency order by conservation groups' March 1 deadline. VANCOUVER – Conservation groups are calli...

March 2, 2018

Press release

Groups urge federal government to protect Southern Resident killer whales with emergency order

VANCOUVER — A coalition of conservation groups from Canada and the U.S. is calling on the Canadian government to take immediate action to ...

January 30, 2018


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

Feds must act now to save the world’s 76 remaining Southern Resident killer whales. Genetically and culturally distinct from other orca...

January 30, 2018

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