Posted on January 18, 2010 (updated: January 18, 2010)

Endangered whale protected the right way

OTTAWA – One of Canada’s most endangered whale populations may find itself in safer waters after the federal government issued its final recovery strategy that explicitly describes the right whale’s critical habitat.

The North Atlantic right whale, an 80-tonnne marine mammal found off the Atlantic coast of Canada, has been on the verge of disappearing for decades. Collisions by passing vessels and entanglements in fixed fishing gear have made the need for strong protection measures crucial to its recovery.

The original recovery strategy proposed by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) in January did not identify the Roseway Basin, an area approximately 48 km south of Nova Scotia, as critical habitat for the right whale despite it being internationally recognized as one of the whale’s five main high-use habitat areas (two are found in Canada, and three in the U.S.).

The David Suzuki Foundation, with advice from lawyers and scientists at Ecojustice, argued that a precautionary approach, based on the best available science, required the government to include the Roseway Basin and Grand Manan Basin as critical habitat of the right whale. The revised, final recovery strategy, released this week by DFO, adopted the environmentalists’ advice by expanding areas of critical habitat for the right whale.

“The Roseway Basin, as well as the Grand Manan Basin, has been known for decades to be the most important habitats in Canadian waters for Atlantic right whales,” says Dr. Scott Wallace, a sustainable fisheries expert with the Foundation. “We are pleased that these areas will finally receive the protection they deserve”.

Now that the Atlantic right whale’s critical habitat appears in the final recovery strategy, the federal government is required to protect it. Under the Species at Risk Act, the government has 180 days to ensure this critical habitat receives legal protection. Legal protection must extend to those habitat features that are necessary for the right whale’s recovery, like prey availability and safety from ship strikes and entanglement in fishing equipment.

“This is a very positive example of the government obeying the law, applying precaution, and giving Canada’s endangered species the habitat protection they so desperately need,” says Susan Pinkus, staff scientist with Ecojustice.

“This recovery strategy does right by the whale,” says Rachel Plotkin, a David Suzuki Foundation policy analyst. “It identifies foraging habitat, based on prey availability, and leaves the door open for this habitat to be expanded, if recovery occurs and if migratory corridors are also deemed to be critical to the whale’s survival.”

Both the Suzuki Foundation and Ecojustice will be urging the federal government to ensure strong regulation of vessel traffic and fishing activity in the areas occupied by the endangered whale, as well as resources provided to meet research and monitoring needs.

The news of the enhanced habitat designation for the right whale follows recent reports of a newly discovered pod of North Atlantic right whales returning to waters off southern Greenland after 200 years, as well as a record crop of 39 right whale calves born this year.

“Overall, it’s been a great year for the right whale and we hope its future is even brighter,” says Ms. Plotkin.


More information about the Species at Risk Act, recovery strategies and critical habitat:
The federal Species at Risk Act (SARA), which came into force in 2003, is Canada’s national law to protect endangered species. One of the main tools used in SARA to help an endangered species survive and recover is the recovery strategy – a scientific document that identifies the conservation threats facing a species, goals for its recovery, and the habitat that is necessary for its survival and recovery. SARA explicitly recognizes that conserving a species’ habitat is key to its conservation and requires that habitat necessary for an endangered species’ survival or recovery (called “critical habitat”) be identified in the recovery strategy for that species to the extent possible, based on the best available information.

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