A number of environmental groups say the federal government is not doing enough to protect orcas on Canada's southwest coast. ((CBC))

Conservationists were in B.C. Supreme Court Tuesday, suing the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans to try and force better protection for killer whales off Canada's West Coast.

They say the federal government is violating its own Species At Risk Act by failing to protect critical habitat for B.C.'s southern and northern resident orcas.

The groups, represented by Ecojustice, have won previous Federal Court orders protecting the critical habitat of several species of birds and small fish.

Environmentalists were pleased when the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) issued an order in 2009, protecting coastal B.C. waters crucial to the survival of resident killer whales.

But Ecojustice says that order falls short and its lawyers are back in court, arguing the definition of critical habitat must include several key factors.

"The south resident population numbers around 85, it's a critical state and unless they start to address the key threats to decline, it's going to go extinct," Devon Page, Ecojustice's executive director, said outside the Federal Court building in Vancouver.

Noise, food stock and pollution cited

Page identified two of those threats as a lack of food, primarily chinook salmon, and extensive pollution in the waters the orcas call home.

"Thirdly, they've got to start protecting the orca from noise," he said. "More recent research suggests that the noise, the amount of boat traffic, seismic testing, drilling, that affects the ability of the orca to find its prey, to find its food."

The ocean off the southern B.C. coast that the southern pod calls home is among the busiest waterways in North America.

Page said the case is part of a 15-year campaign by Ecojustice to protect endangered species. The group is hopeful a court victory would ensure stronger legal protection for all of Canada's endangered species.

"We are asking for an order that the minister [of fisheries and oceans] go back, do what's required under the Species at Risk Act, which would require releasing a protection order that identifies how they're going to protect the critical habitat of the orca," he said.

In court, Ecojustice lawyer Margot Venton said DFO has failed to implement adequate recovery and protection plans for the orcas.

DFO to respond

She said critical habitat must be seen as more than just a place on a map.

DFO lawyers have not yet had a chance to present their case before Justice James Russell.

Resident killer whales reside in B.C. waters year-round. The southern residents are listed as endangered, while northern residents are listed as threatened with a population of approximately 235.

The coalition of environmental groups includes the David Suzuki Foundation, Dogwood Initiative, Environmental Defence, Greenpeace, Georgia Strait Alliance, International Fund for Animal Welfare, Raincoast Conservation, Sierra Club of B.C., and the Wilderness Committee.

The court proceedings are scheduled to last for five days.