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Humpback whales still need our help!

Last weekend the Canadian government moved forward with the formal legal process to downgrade the status of the Pacific humpback whales from the “threatened” to “special concern” status under the Species at Risk Act. This action follows a 2011 decision by the scientific body committee responsible for assessing the status of species in Canada (COSEWIC) to similarly downgrade their risk status based on evidence that populations have made a strong recovery.

Normally, seeing an increase in numbers of a species to the point where they are no longer considered officially “threatened” would be cause for celebration. However the humpbacks face new and growing threats. This change in status is being made at the same time as numerous development project proposals are being considered for the B.C. coast.

The North Pacific humpback whale is a magnificent creature. It is one of the largest marine animals weighing up to 40 tonnes and growing to lengths greater than a city bus. North Pacific Humpbacks were subjected to heavy commercial whaling from 1905 to 1965. In all, around 28,000 animals were killed and the population of North Pacific humpbacks was reduced by up to 95%.  Commercial whaling for humpbacks was banned in 1966, by which point there were as few as 1,600 animals left in the North Pacific.

Humpback whales were rare sightings in BC for decades after the whaling ban, and were officially listed as “Threatened” in Canada in the mid 1980s. When Canada’s Species at Risk Act (SARA)  was enacted in 2003 the whales were provided with additional legal protection under this federal statute.  Since then, thanks to protection measures and the end of whaling, their numbers have increased steadily and significantly.

Just months ago, in November 2013, the federal government released the long awaited Recovery Strategy for the North Pacific Humpback Whale as part of the government’s commitment under SARA to protect “threatened” species. The recovery strategy identified critical habitat for these whales, and listed the activities that pose a threat to that habitat including “vessel traffic, toxic spills, overfishing, seismic exploration, sonar and pile driving”.

The downgrading of humpbacks from “threatened” to “special concern” under SARA means that there will no longer be a legal requirement to protect their critical habitat. This is troubling, as many of the proposed developments overlap with identified critical whale habitat. So while the population may be increasing, we need to be aware that the risks they face are also increasing.

We hope that humpback populations continue to recover, and that all scientific evidence as well as the emerging threats facing these whales are carefully considered in moving forward with this decision to downgrade their status under SARA. We need to be sure that our humpback whale population has not only recovered but is also able to withstand the increasing risks it will face on our ever-changing west coast.  This means that we need to continue to safeguard their critical habitat, protect them from pollution and spills as well as new threats that we are just beginning to recognize, like ocean noise.

Establishing well-planned networks of MPAs that protect the critical habitat of this whale is another way to help ensure that all species and the ecosystems on which they depend, whatever their official conservation status, are protected long into the future.  CPAWS is engaged in marine planning efforts along B.C.’s North and Central Coasts and in Haida Gwaii,  as well as working to secure establishment of the Southern Strait of Georgia National Marine Conservation Area     and a nationwide network of marine protected areas.  All of which will serve a valuable role to many species, such as the Pacific humpback whale, in protecting their home and their future.