Ecojustice Blog – Nature Posted on February 19, 2016 (updated: March 29, 2017)

World Whale Day: Taking a look at what we’re doing to protect whales

Margot VentonLawyer
pop up Robb Lansdowne
Photo by Robb Lansdowne

You likely know that Feb. 14 is Valentine’s Day, but did you know that the day before, Feb. 13, is World Whale Day? World Whale Day, which began in Maui to coincide with the annual humpback whale migration, is now in its 36th year. It is a day on which we recognize the amazingness of whales. From my office on Pender Island in the Salish Sea, it’s a day I spent contemplating the future for resident killer whales.

Killer whales can be found throughout the earth’s oceans – what makes them unique is that they have evolved into different groups or ecotypes which look different and have different prey preferences, feeding habits, and acoustic behaviors. Resident killer whales, such as the endangered Southern Resident killer whale, are fish-eating whales.

It has been a tumultuous year, filled with both ups and downs for resident killer whales. In the case of the Southern Residents, eight calves were born into the small 80-animal population this past year in the Georgia Strait and Puget Sound – this represents the biggest population boom since the 1970s. In stark contrast, just last month it was announced that the last resident population in the British Isles is destined for extinction after new research revealed western European waters remain a hotspot for toxic PCB pollution leakage — these chemicals accumulate in the blubber of dolphins and killer whales and are known to harm their breeding success and immune systems.

It is hard to know what effect the Pacific Coast’s baby boom might have on the endangered Southern Residents, and whether it is enough to push the population towards recovery. Mortality rates for calves are extremely high — roughly 50 per cent in the first year of life, so they are not typically included in population counts until they are older.

These whales are imperilled due to three main threats, which often act in concert: Prey availability, marine pollution and contaminant loading in their bodies, and ocean noise. As the ocean gets louder due to increases in shipping and boat traffic, it becomes more difficult for the whales to hunt efficiently, forcing the whales to metabolize fat, which in baby whales contains much of its mother’s contamination. The deadly combo works together in a way that is often too much for these little whales cope with, and leads to early deaths.

Ecojustice is committed towards helping ensure that all species, including these whales, are protected under the law. In past years we have fought and won landmark lawsuits to protect the critical habitat of Southern Resident killer whales, and release delayed recovery strategies that help ensure the survival of species like the Pacific humpback whales. We have even gone south of the border to help our clients appear as friends of the Court — our participation helped lead to a U.S. Court decision that required the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to reconsider its biological opinion on the impact naval activity has on whales.

And the work does not stop there. We continue to work with groups like Raincoast Conservation Foundation, David Suzuki Foundation, Georgia Strait Alliance and Western Canada Wilderness Committee, to put the needs of the Southern Resident killer whales front and centre in the review of various development proposals. Included in this list are the Kinder Morgan pipeline and the Roberts Bank Terminal 2 expansion. Both projects will increase marine traffic noise and pollution, and likely result in reduced prey availability in the Southern Resident’s critical habitat — in essence amplifying the deadly trio of threats to whale survival.

We, along with our clients, take the position that if these projects cannot happen without jeopardizing the survival and recovery of endangered killer whales, then they should not happen at all. It’s that simple.

It’s a tough stance, but it’s also one we think is clearly reflected in our federal species laws. Moreover, it’s a necessary stand to take if we want to have something to celebrate on World Whale Day for years to come.

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