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An orca breaches blue water. It exhales water from its blowhole and makes a splash of water above it.

Photo by Miles Ritter via Flickr

press release

Conservation groups are back in court to protect the Southern Resident Killer Whales from the devastating impacts of the Roberts Bank megaport

June 24, 2024

VANCOUVER/UNCEDED xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (MUSQUEAM), Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (SQUAMISH) AND səlilwətaɬ (TSLEIL-WAUTUTH) TERRITORIES: Conservation groups are at Vancouver Federal Court today fighting to uphold laws aimed at protecting endangered species by challenging the approval of the Roberts Bank Terminal 2 project by way of a judicial review. 

Represented by Ecojustice lawyers, the David Suzuki Foundation, Georgia Strait Alliance, Raincoast Conservation Foundation and the Wilderness Committee will argue that approval of this megaport is unlawful, as the project cannot be deemed “justified” under environmental assessment legislation when it contradicts another statute — the Species at Risk Act.

The Port of Vancouver is set to destroy 177 hectares of important Chinook habitat in the heart of the Fraser River estuary to make way for this expansion, which will double the capacity of the existing terminal. The Fraser River estuary is one of Canada’s most  biodiverse regions , with habitat for more than 100 species already at-risk, including 14 populations of Fraser Chinook and the Southern Resident Killer Whales (SRKW) that feed on them. Construction and operation of this port will intensify stress on the estuary, further endanger some of the largest wild salmon runs in the world and increase the risk of extinction for these orcas. 

With only 74 Southern Residents left and an emergency order request recently filed by conservation groups, these killer whales cannot withstand any further loss and destruction of their critical habitat. Recent analysis found that survival for these endangered whales requires habitat conditions to improve, not get worse.

For the past decade, conservation organizations, scientists and local community groups have urged the federal government not to approve the Terminal 2 project. Today, supporters rallied outside of the courthouse to highlight the negative effects of the project, including considerations for labour and First Nation communities.

A court victory would demonstrate that laws protecting Canada’s endangered species cannot be disregarded in the name of megaprojects that jeopardize their survival. If the Species at Risk Act is to protect the species that need it, the Roberts Bank Terminal 2 project cannot proceed.

Margot Venton, director, nature program, Ecojustice said: “Our federal Species at Risk Act, reflects Canada’s commitment to the world to halt and reverse the biodiversity crisis through the protection of at risk species, like the Southern Resident Killer Whales. In this case, we are asking the Court whether the government can lawfully sidestep the Species at Risk Act when approving major projects. This question is important for the protection of all species at risk throughout Canada.” 

Jeffery Young, senior science and policy analyst, David Suzuki Foundation, said: “Southern Resident Killer Whales are already on the brink, struggling with noise and vessel pollution, contaminants and a decline of Chinook salmon. Now, they’re facing noisier, riskier waters from a newly operational Trans Mountain pipeline expansion. The last thing they need is a megaport that will cause irreversible harm to them and their prey.”

Lucero Gonzalez, conservation and policy campaigner , Wilderness Committee, said: “The federal government must uphold its own Species at Risk Act. We should not be going to court for this! The public should be able to trust that laws meant to protect species at risk and our shared environment will be respected and that projects will not be approved unless they are in line with those laws. We can’t afford the vast scale of devastation this project will cause, from driving Southern Resident Killer Whales closer to extinction to disrupting thousands of family-supporting jobs. This project simply cannot go ahead.”

Russ Elliott, campaigns manager, Georgia Strait Alliance, said: “The government can — and must — do more to safeguard the biodiversity of these lands and waters that they have pledged to protect, including the Southern Resident Killer Whale. The Roberts Bank Terminal 2 Project (RBT2) poses a great threat to these orcas that are so close to extinction, and yet are so intimately known to us. We know their names, their personalities, their families. The cumulative impact of RBT2 and other mega-projects intensifies threats from climate change and pollution, jeopardizing the survival of species listed under the Species at Risk Act—our government’s own legislation! How many orcas must die before protecting life takes precedence over economic gain? The precious life of these 74 orcas hangs in the balance. 

Kristen Walters, director of salmon habitat & climate change, Raincoast Conservation Foundation said: “When the federal government approved the Roberts Bank Terminal 2 Project, they contravened their own legislation, the Species at Risk Act. We argue that this approval is unlawful, and as such, it cannot move forward. We will continue to champion a thriving Fraser River Estuary that supports the recovery of endangered Southern Resident Killer Whales and over 100 other at-risk species. This is a place worth fighting for, one that whales, fish, birds and people have depended on for generations”. 

Background: 

Since 2014, Ecojustice has represented the David Suzuki Foundation, Georgia Strait Alliance, Raincoast Conservation Foundation and Wilderness Committee in the environmental assessment of the Roberts Bank Terminal 2 project. In 2019, Ecojustice represented the group at hearings held by a federally-appointed independent review panel. The groups presented expert evidence about the impacts of the project, which included increased noise from vessel traffic and its negative impact on Southern Resident Killer Whales, marine pollution, threats to wild salmon and their rearing habitat, and threats to the other 119 species that call the Salish Sea home. 

In 2020, the review panel concluded the project would have “numerous” adverse effects on the environment, including “significant adverse effects on Chinook salmon” and “significant adverse and cumulative effects on Southern Resident Killer Whales”, which include destruction of Southern Resident Killer Whale critical habitat. 

Since then, the Port Authority has made modifications to its original proposal that it claims will reduce the harmful effects of the project. However, this falls short of mitigation of the project’s effects. This project remains a serious threat to biodiversity and long-term survival of species in the area. In light of the dramatic and irreversible environmental impacts this project will have on Chinook salmon and endangered killer whales, this project should never have been given the greenlight. 

About: 

The David Suzuki Foundation (DavidSuzuki.org | @DavidSuzukiFdn) is a leading Canadian environmental non-profit organization, founded in 1990. We operate in English and French, with offices in Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal. We collaborate with all people in Canada, including First Nations leadership and communities, governments, businesses and individuals to find solutions to create a sustainable Canada through scientific research, traditional ecological knowledge, communications and public engagement, and innovative policy and legal solutions. Our mission is to protect nature’s diversity and the well-being of all life, now and for the future.

For more than 30 years, Georgia Strait Alliance has been the leading voice for the protection of the Strait of Georgia. Grounded in environmental justice, Georgia Strait Alliance mobilizes and supports collective action to protect the Salish Sea region in order to achieve the vision of a Salish Sea teeming with life where thriving and just communities live in balance with the environment.

Raincoast Conservation Foundation is a team of conservationists and scientists empowered by our research to protect the lands, waters and wildlife of coastal British Columbia. We use rigorous, peer-reviewed science and community engagement to further our conservation objectives. Our approach is to Investigate, Inform and Inspire. We investigate to understand coastal species and processes. We inform by bringing science to decision-makers and communities. We inspire action to protect wildlife and wildlife habitats. 

Envisioning a Canada where wilderness and wildlife thrive for the benefit of all, we at the Wilderness Committee strive to protect nature, defend wildlife and fight climate change. Our works to protect life-giving biological diversity through strategic research, community mobilizing and grassroots public education. 

Ecojustice goes to court and uses the power of the law to defend nature, combat climate change and fight for a healthy environment. Its strategic, innovative public interest lawsuits lead to legal precedents that deliver lasting solutions to Canada’s most urgent environmental problems. As Canada’s largest environmental law charity, Ecojustice operates offices in Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto, Ottawa and Halifax.