Nature Canada
Photo by Nicole Peshy, an Orca hunting a Sea Lion.

Federal Government Fails Endangered Orcas

Julie Gelfand, Canada’s environmental watchdog, has found that Canada has long failed to protect marine mammals, such as the Southern Resident Orcas, from the threats posed by marine vessels and commercial fishing.

Threats to the endangered Southern Resident Orcas associated with marine vessels are set to increase with the proposed expansion of the Trans Mountain Pipeline. The Ministers of Fisheries and Oceans Canada and Environment and Climate Change Canada have an opportunity to protect the Southern Resident Orca population from such threats by declaring an Emergency Order under the Species at Risk Act.

The Audit on Marine Mammals

Julie Gelfand, the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development to the Parliament of Canada conducted an audit to determine whether Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO), Environment and Climate Change Canada, Parks Canada and Transport Canada adequately protected marine mammals in waters under the jurisdiction of the federal government from threats posed by marine vessels and commercial fishing during the period of 1 January 2012 and 1 June 2018. The Commissioner’s report was released October 2, 2018 and is available here: Report 2 – Protecting Marine Mammals.

To summarize her official report, the Commissioner found that relevant federal authorities had not fully applied existing policies and tools to manage threats to marine mammals that stem from commercial fishing and marine vessels. Threats from commercial fishing include entanglements, bycatch, depletion of food sources such as salmon, noise and disturbance, oil spills and collisions with marine vessels. Risks posed by underwater noise and disturbance from marine vessels, collisions and oil spills could impede the recovery or speed the decline of marine mammal populations.

Species at Risk Management

The Commissioner also found that for 11 out of 14 marine mammal species listed as endangered or threatened under the Species at Risk Act, DFO could not demonstrate that it had implemented management measures to reduce threats from commercial fishing and marine vessels. Thus, the Commissioner found that management tools have not been used to protect marine mammals until the situation became severe.

Southern Resident Orcas

The plight of British Columbia’s Southern Resident Orcas demonstrate the impact of delaying management measures. While the Southern Resident Orca was listed as endangered in 2003, an Action Plan was not finalized until 2017. The Commissioner’s report found that DFO only began to implement management measures to address threats to the Southern Resident Orcas in 2017 and 2018.

The Southern Resident Orcas are currently experiencing fatalities due to strikes with marine vessels and stress from noise and disturbance caused by marine shipping vessels. Both of these threats would intensify with increased marine shipping traffic associated with the proposed Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion.

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