More than 300 at-risk killer whales living in British Columbia waters year-round haven't been adequately protected by Ottawa, a federal court judge has ruled.
The Department of Fisheries and Oceans has "acted unlawfully" by failing to implement sufficient measures to safeguard the whales' critical habitat, Justice Russell Goodwin ruled Tuesday.
The lawsuit was brought by a coalition of nine environmental groups, including Greenpeace, the David Suzuki Foundation, Ecojustice, the Sierra Club and the International Fund for Animal Welfare.
"The government is the one who's supposed to be monitoring best practices towards the environment," Stephanie Goodwin, B.C. director of Greenpeace, said after the ruling.
"But what we're learning is without independent assessors or auditors or even independent watchdogs … killer whales and their habitat aren't being protected, even though on paper the Canadian government says it is happening."
The environmental and wildlife groups argued that Fisheries and Oceans flouted laws outlined in the Species at Risk Act, which requires the department to protect identified critical habitats of endangered and threatened species from destruction.
Justice Russell agreed, ruling the federal government failed to prevent significant threats to the habitat, such as toxic contamination and noise pollution. It also failed to protect the declining wild salmon stocks, the prey the whales depend on, he said.
Goodwin said it's now in the DFO's court to look to science and strike a committee that includes both scientists and experts from other fields.
"They need to come to common agreement around what are all the things we need to do, then figure out what are the legal and policy mechanisms to move this forward," she said.
Two populations of resident killer whales live off the B.C. coast — about 220 northern residents listed as "threatened" and another 85 or so in the south listed as "endangered."
Goodwin said even though it's now up to the government to take action, the only way to know if it complies is through monitoring.
"We can watch and gauge their progress as an external monitoring force, and we can also let the public know that they should be watching for this," she said. "If the Canadian government doesn't take action on it, then they can let the government know with their vote."
A Fisheries and Oceans spokeswoman said in an email that the government is reviewing the court decision and determining its next steps.