Canada Killer Whales face Extinction

Killer whales in southern B.C. waters could be extinct in as little as a century if things don’t change, experts said Wednesday.

Only 87 resident killer whales live in southern B.C. waters, after a 20-per-cent decline between 1993 and 2003. About 240 northern resident killer whales are also threatened.

“For most species a population reduced to 87… they’d be toast. We wouldn’t even be considering recovery as a viable possibility,” said Dr. Lance Barrett-Lennard, an international expert on killer whales.

But, he said, whales have built-in mechanisms that discourage inbreeding and its population could conceivably still recover, although “every death is critical.”

Barrett-Lennard is co-chairman of the Resident Killer Whale Recovery Team. The organization worked with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans to produce a killer whale recovery strategy, finalized in March.

To protect killer whales, eight leading environmentalist groups, including the David Suzuki Foundation, Greenpeace and the Western Canada Wilderness Committee, filed a lawsuit Wednesday in federal court against the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, alleging it has failed to protect whale habitat.

“We have a federal government that’s reluctant to apply the Species at Risk Act to actually protect and recover endangered species in this country,” said Gwen Barlee of the Wilderness Committee.

“B.C.’s endangered species deserve better.”

The lawsuit is the first to be filed under Section 58 of the act, which prohibits the destruction of an endangered species’ habitat, said Lara Tessaro, a lawyer with Ecojustice, formerly the Sierra Legal Defence Fund.

“The consequences of this kind of lawsuit, if successful, is that the federal government would be required to sit down and create marine protected areas,” she said.

The environmentalist groups say the orcas’ population decline is due to threats to their habitat, including a sharp decline in salmon stocks, increased boat and tanker traffic, toxic contamination, dredging, military sonar tests and seismic tests.

Recently, scientists monitoring whales off southern Vancouver Island reported the whales have less blubber — a sign they are having difficulty finding food.

Last month, the DFO issued a two-page statement claiming the orcas’ habitat is already protected by legislation and guidelines.

But the groups said the legislation is too broad and the guidelines are without teeth.

They want the government to take specific steps to protect the animals, such as banning vessel traffic and military sonar tests in specific areas like Robson Bight, and restricting commercial fishing to make sure whales have sufficient food.

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans did not return calls.