Protecting killer whale critical habitat should not be a matter of choice, but a matter of the law.

That’s what Ecojustice will be arguing before the federal Court of Appeal today.

This appeal hearing is the latest milestone in our long battle for a brighter future for B.C.’s endangered and threatened killer whales.

Late last year we won a precedent-setting case in the Federal Court, which confirmed that the federal government has a legal duty to protect all aspects of killer whale critical habitat — including the salmon the whales eat and the quality of the ocean environment where they live — as outlined in the Species at Risk Act (SARA).

The lawsuit, filed on behalf of a coalition of nine environmental groups, centred around two distinct killer whale populations that traverse B.C.’s coastal waters, the northern and southern residents. At last count there were 264 threatened northern residents and just 87 endangered southern residents. Both species are listed under SARA.

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans has since appealed the ruling, and claims that the Fisheries Act gives killer whale habitat enough protection. However, unlike SARA, the Fisheries Act does not make protection of critical habitat — the spaces a species needs to survive and recover — mandatory. In fact, under the Act, the Minister Keith Ashfield retains the discretion to give habitat-destroying activities the go-ahead.

When applied with the full weight of the law behind it, SARA offers vulnerable species like the endangered southern residents the chance they need to not just survive, but recover.

Protection of critical habitat — physical spaces as well as the biological features within those spaces — is a crucial component of conserving at-risk species like the killer whales. To thrive, these whales need to plenty of Chinook salmon to eat, and a cleaner, quieter ocean

The outcome of today’s appeal hearing has implications not just for the killer whales, but for the more than 90 marine species listed under SARA, and all these species depend on healthy habitats to survive.

Check back tomorrow for an update from today’s hearing.