Conservation groups demand emergency protections for endangered killer whales as Trans Mountain expansion intensifies threats

OceansSouthern Resident Killer Whales

Federal promises made for endangered whales during Trans Mountain (TMX) approval are unfulfilled, groups say

VANCOUVER/UNCEDED xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (MUSQUEAM), Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (SQUAMISH), AND səlilwətaɬ (TSLEIL-WAUTUTH) TERRITORIES: Six conservation groups are urging the federal government to implement an emergency order —  a mechanism that allows Ottawa to intervene when there are imminent threats to species at risk — to protect endangered southern resident killer whales from threats to their survival and recovery.

Ecojustice, on behalf of their clients, sent a petition to the minister of fisheries and oceans and minister of environment and climate change, requesting they recommend Cabinet issue an emergency order under the Species at Risk Act (SARA) to protect the endangered population of only 74 whales.

The groups behind the petition are the David Suzuki Foundation, Georgia Strait Alliance, Living Oceans Society, Natural Resources Defense Council, Raincoast Conservation Foundation, and World Wildlife Fund Canada.

The emergency measures proposed by the groups include:

  • Implement a series of measures to reduce noise and disturbance from vessels traveling in or near southern resident foraging areas. Key actions include expanding the current 200-meters vessel distance buffer to 1,000 metres to harmonize with Washington State legislation, requiring quiet vessel notations for tankers serving the TMX terminal, and developing, adopting, and implementing meaningful underwater noise reduction targets.
  • Implement prey management strategies to rebuild Chinook abundance including a transition from marine mixed stock fisheries to terminal riv ensure access to Chinook salmon. Key actions include establishing an emergency management plan for Chinook fisheries that contains minimum thresholds for Chinook abundance, limiting the total fishing-related mortality of at-risk early Fraser River Chinook salmon to less than five per cent, and establishing an emergency drought management plan.
  • Implement measures to increase wild Chinook salmon accessibility for southern residents, including extending the period of existing fishing closures in key foraging areas.
  • Prohibit further increases of shipping from new, federally-approved, industrial projects in the Salish Sea until a cumulative effects management plan that addresses underwater noise, as promised by the government when it approved TMX, is in place.
  • Prohibit discharge of scrubber wastewater, bilge and greywater from any vessel in or near the habitat of the southern residents.

The groups contend that the requested emergency measures are urgently required given that the conditions southern residents need to recover have not been attained, and time is running out.

The seasonal measures for southern residents announced by the government on Monday are largely a continuation of similar measures from previous years. These measures have not sufficiently reduced threats to a level conducive to recovery. In addition, the southern residents are now facing additional threats from Trans Mountain Expansion (TMX) tanker traffic, and the measures needed to mitigate those new threats remain unfulfilled.

When the federal government approved the TMX in 2019, it promised to implement 16 recommendations from the Canada Energy Regulator to help address the additional vessel noise and oil spill risk posed by TMX.  It previously committed to “more than mitigate” the impacts before shipping began. So far, the government has failed to do so, even as oil tankers began sailing in May.

An emergency order is the most urgent lever available to ensure that government acts quickly to address the pre-existing threats of underwater noise and disturbance to southern residents, which are now being exacerbated by the 7-fold increase in tanker traffic from TMX in their critical habitat.

The groups say that the federal government must recommend an emergency order to give the iconic species protection from imminent threats to their survival and create conditions for their recovery.

Hussein Alidina, lead specialist marine conservation for WWF-Canada, said:
“Southern resident killer whales are closer to extinction today than when they were listed under the Species at Risk Act (SARA) over 20 years ago. They are in dire need of a lifeline and substantially increased protection from the multiple threats they face. Despite ongoing efforts, underwater noise pollution has not been sufficiently reduced to enable their recovery and continues to reduce these whales’ ability to feed, sense their environment and communicate. It is the federal government’s responsibility under SARA to direct emergency measures to prevent further increases in shipping noise and legally mandate aggressive noise reduction targets in the critical habitat of southern residents. Implementation of emergency order protections that we have identified can provide conditions that southern residents desperately require to survive and recover before it’s too late.”

Margot Venton, Ecojustice nature program director said:  “Emergency orders are an effective legal tool that the Canadian government can use to protect a species from imminent threats to its survival or recovery. Southern Resident killer whales are in crisis, and with oil tankers sailing in May, threats to their survival and recovery are only going to get worse. We need Minister Lebouthillier and Minister Guilbeault to recommend emergency order protections and give Southern Residents some sort of relief from the increased threats they face because of TMX.”

Jeffery Young, senior science and policy analyst for the David Suzuki Foundation, said: “It’s been six years since the federal government officially recognized that southern resident killer whales are under imminent threat of extinction. In that time, we failed to address the existing threats to their survival. Adding the noise, disturbance and potential spill risks from TMX puts their existence in even greater peril. Minister Lebouthillier and Minister Guilbeault must put in place an emergency order to address these threats and give these marine mammals a chance to survive.”

Misty MacDuffee, Wild Salmon Program Director, Raincoast Conservation Foundation, said: “When TMX was approved, the federal government made promises to Canadians that enhanced measures for endangered whales would be in place before oil shipments were operational. These promises have not been fulfilled. We are seeking an emergency order to implement the outstanding commitments made on Southern Resident killer whale recovery.”

Michael Jasny, Marine Mammal Project Director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said: “The Southern Residents are iconic and beloved—and they are running out of time. The whales have not rebounded, and all the tankers that will shortly be moving through their critical habitat will worsen conditions for their recovery. With this petition, we are asking the government to fulfill its promises for the whales, when it approved the Trans Mountain project five years ago.”

Russ Elliott, Campaigns Manager, Georgia Strait Alliance, said: “The Ministers can – and must – do more to protect these orcas that are so close to extinction, and yet are so intimately known to us. We know their names, their personalities, their families. Regulations must not stagnate while enormous new threats, like a dramatic increase in tanker traffic, pollute the orcas’ life source and push them further into oblivion. An emergency order would turn around the government’s current stance that ultimately supports a managed extinction plan for Southern Resident orcas and shift it towards a real plan for their survival.”

Karen Wristen, Executive Director, Living Oceans Society, said: “With TMX now in operation, underwater noise in the Salish Sea will increase dramatically with the addition of 30 oil tankers and their associated tugs and pilot vessels each month of the year.  Noise levels were already interfering with the ability of SRKW to feed and raise their young before the pipeline project began; and there is no evidence that voluntary noise abatement measures have improved that situation. It is imperative that noise reduction targets are set, managed and monitored for effectiveness.”


Ecojustice uses the power of the law to defend nature, combat climate change, and fight for a healthy environment. Its strategic, public interest lawsuits and advocacy lead to precedent-setting court decisions and law and policy that deliver lasting solutions to Canada’s most urgent environmental problems. As Canada’s largest environmental law charity, Ecojustice operates offices in Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto, Ottawa, and Halifax.

Grounded in environmental justice, Georgia Strait Alliance mobilizes and supports collective action for the protection of a Salish Sea teeming with life where thriving and just communities live in balance with the environment,

WWF-Canada is committed to equitable and effective conservation actions that restore nature, reverse wildlife loss, and fight climate change. We draw on scientific analysis and Indigenous guidance to ensure all our efforts connect to a single goal: a future where wildlife, nature, and people thrive. For more information

The David Suzuki Foundation ( | @DavidSuzukiFdn) is a Canadian environmental non-profit organization, founded in 1990. We operate in English and French, with offices in Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal. We aim to collaborate with many different people in Canada, including Indigenous leadership and communities, all governments, businesses and individuals to find solutions to create a sustainable Canada through scientific research, traditional ecological knowledge, innovative policy and legal solutions, communications and public engagement. Our mission is to protect nature’s diversity and the well-being of all life, now and for the future. We envision a world where we all act every day on the understanding that we are interdependent with nature, and with each other.

Living Oceans Society works to ensure that Canada’s oceans are sustainably managed and thriving with abundant and diverse sea life that supports vibrant and resilient communities. We engage with government, industry and the people who live and work on the coast to create viable solutions to conservation issues.

Raincoast Conservation Foundaton is a team of conservationists and scientists empowered by our research to protect the lands, waters and wildlife of coastal British Columbia. We use rigorous, peer-reviewed science and community engagement to further our conservation objectives.  We work in partnership with scientists, First Nations, local communities, and NGOs to build support for decisions that protect species, marine and terrestrial habitat on BC’s coast.