Just a fluke? The rush to downlist humpbacks while other whales wait for help.

Co-Written by Linda Nowlan, Director of Pacific Conservation and  Louise BlightSenior Officer, Marine Science
The Canadian government’s “downlisting” of Pacific humpback whales from “Threatened” to “Special Concern” caused a media sensation:  more than 3,000 comments were posted on one article in under 24 hours, and the topic went viral on social media. Like many, we wonder why this species was singled out for such quick action while other whales at risk in northern BC wait for better protection. The science is sound but the timing sure is fishy.

humpback whale
Three threats to humpbacks on B.C.’s north coast – vessel strikes, net entanglement, toxic spills and acoustic disturbance – are directly related to shipping. © forwhales.org

Downlisting, or listing a species under a lower threat category in Canada’s Species at Risk Act (SARA), is a conservation success story, yet the announcement was greeted with widespread public suspicion. The uproar zeroed in on this uncharacteristically speedy decision by a government notorious for delays around species at risk, and how this removes a roadblock to Cabinet approval of the Enbridge tanker-pipeline project, a decision due in two months.
Federal law prohibits destruction of the critical habitat of Threatened and Endangered species. The same prohibition does not apply to species classified as Special Concern. Approving a project that will accelerate rapid shipping growth in the humpbacks’ favourite pit stop would almost certainly have caused legal problems if they remained Threatened. But not anymore.
Three of the four threats identified in the Humpback recovery strategy – vessel strike; entanglement, toxic spills, and acoustic disturbance – are directly related to shipping.
And if approved, the Enbridge Northern Gateway project alone would add more than 220 new extremely large tankers to humpback habitat. If any of the upwards of six liquefied natural gas (LNG) plants proposed for northern BC are built, they will boost shipping in this habitat too. Combined with existing large vessel traffic, cruise ships, and ferry traffic, the North coast region could see up to 2,500 transits per year by 2025 – nearly tripling current levels of shipping.
The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC), an arm’s-length body of conservation science experts, recommended downlisting as the best available data show that humpbacks in Canada’s Pacific are increasing. Considering how whaling almost eliminated some species of large whales from the face of the Earth, the recovery of this group of gentle giants is indeed good news.
Yet the dodgy timing sours the success story.  As COSEWIC member Dr. Andrew Trites said yesterday, “There’s a case to be made that politics are moving this one through faster. The Canadian government seems to be slow to list species we’d consider threatened or endangered, but they seem much faster when we go the opposite direction.”
fin whale
Completion has been slow for action plans for B.C.’s threatened fin whales, the second largest mammal on Earth. © forwhales.org

Three other whale species in BC coastal waters illustrate his point. Completion of the legally required action plan for SARA-listed threatened fin whales and for endangered blue whales has been slow. Threatened northern resident killer whales have a complete action plan, yet it’s still only in draft form. Extra protection for most whales, such as regulations that would protect critical habitat, takes years and court actions to put in place, in contrast to the rapidity of the decision to downlist the humpback. This disparity in the federal response may be what is at the root of public cynicism.
Killer whales
Threatened northern resident killer whales are among the whales awaiting better protection on B.C.’s north coast. © Louise Blight

Just last month, we wrote about a Federal Court decision in which the judge chastised the government for unacceptable delays in producing overdue recovery strategies, a situation which applies to  over 160 SARA-listed species: “To state the obvious, the Species at Risk Act was enacted because some wildlife species in Canada are at risk. As the applicants note, many are in a race against the clock as increased pressure is put on their critical habitat, and their ultimate survival may be at stake.”
Indeed, this need for our help is why humpbacks are still considered to be “at risk”, albeit at the lower risk category of Special Concern.
Speeding up the long overdue protection needed by all BC whales, and by all Canadian species at risk, is what’s needed, not rushing one species to the head of the line for questionable motives.