Canada's Harper government has moved North Pacific humpback whales from the "threatened" list to a "species of special concern," a change that reduces protections for the marine mammals and could facilitate the approval of a tar sands pipeline.
According to a document posted Saturday in the Canada Gazette, the Minister of the Environment's recommendation for the reclassification for the whales under the Species at Risk Act (SARA) follows a 2011 assessment from the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) — "an independent group of expert scientists"— that "the species’ situation has improved tremendously over the last five decades."
Others cast doubt on the science behind the reclassification.
Following the 2011 assessment, the federal government put out 312 notices for consultations regarding the potential of downgrading the whales' status. It got back 22 responses, just five of which were in favor of the changed SARA status.
Of those responses opposed to the status change, the document states:
Some of the respondents indicated that the reclassification of the species could lead to increased activities in the waters along the British Columbia coast. These activities could result in increased tanker traffic, entanglements, and hazardous petroleum product spills. Other respondents cited that more research was needed to better understand the diet needs of the species, its genetic and population structure, the impacts of vessel interactions, and the impacts of ocean noise before reclassification under Schedule 1 should be considered.
The CBC reported:
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Karen Wristen, executive director of the Living Oceans Society, said the decision to downgrade the whale's protection "has absolutely no basis in science and is simply a political move to clear the way to approve the pipeline."
She noted that downgrading means that the government would no longer have to designate critical habitat for the whale's recovery.v Currently, that designated critical habitat includes areas near Kitimat, B.C. – the proposed western end of the Northern Gateway pipeline – where the whales feed and rear their young in the spring and summer, she said.
On the status change impacts to Enbridge's pipeline, the Vancouver Sun adds:
The decision removes a major legal hurdle that the environmental group Ecojustice said stood in the way of the $7.9-billion Northern Gateway pipeline project that would bring 550,000 barrels of diluted bitumen crude from Alberta to Kitimat. [...]
The fate of the humpback was a major issue during the Northern Gateway public hearings that concluded last year, with many groups fearing that collisions, potential spills, and excessive noise would be a serious threat to the whales.
In a January press release from Ecojustice, the group cited a federal government recovery strategy for the whales that identified toxic spills and increased vessel traffic from the Northern Gateway project as threats to humpacks' recovery. Yet the strategy was issued over four years late, meaning that information was not considered by the federal Joint Review Panel (JRP), which ultimately recommended the project's go-ahead.
Residents of Kitimat, which would be the terminus for the Northern Gateway pipeline and home to supertankers, have warned that the projet would bring certain death to whales and Chris Genovali, Executive Director of Raincoast Conservation Foundation, previously told Common Dreams that a plebiscite vote in the small town rejecting Enbridge's pipeline showed that residents were aware of the threats posed by the pipeline to the province's coast, including "increased tanker traffic and vessel noise through sensitive and productive waters, impoverishing critical habitat for numerous species of threatened and endangered whales."