The federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) was hit with a lawsuit today by environmental groups from across Canada. 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.

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.

“This is the first lawsuit ever of its kind in Canada,” said Lara Tessaro, Staff Lawyer at Ecojustice. “We hope to force the federal government to legally protect the critical habitat of endangered species – like the Southern Resident Killer Whales.”

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.

“DFO’s decision not to protect critical habitat of Resident Killer Whale is symptomatic of the federal government’s widespread failure to implement the Species at Risk Act,” said Gwen Barlee, Policy Director of the Wilderness Committee, adding “B.C.’s endangered species deserve better.”

Bill Wareham, Senior Marine Conservation Specialist at the David Suzuki Foundation, explained “To truly protect killer whales’ critical habitat, Canada needs to legally protect areas that serve the Killer Whales’ basic needs for food and rest.  Comprehensive marine use plans that include new protected areas are essential, if we hope to recover populations of these magnificent whales.”

Killer Whales face many serious threats throughout their habitat on the west 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.

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.  Critical habitat is the habitat that is necessary for the survival or recovery of a species-at-risk.

Dr. Lance Barrett-Lennard, a leading international scientific expert on killer whales and the Co-Chair of the Resident Killer Whale Recovery Team, has noted that the team resisted multiple attempts by senior government officials to remove critical habitat and other scientific information from the Resident Killer Whale Recovery Strategy prior to its completion.