Six environmental groups filed a lawsuit in Vancouver on Wednesday against the federal government, accusing it of failing to protect endangered and threatened killer whales on the B.C. coast.
The legal action came after Ottawa's decision last month to not protect killer whales beyond existing measures, said Laura Tessaro, a lawyer for Ecojustice, formerly the Sierra Legal Defence Fund.
"The lawsuit alleges that the federal government has failed to legally protect the critical habitat of endangered and threatened resident killer whales," she said.
Ecojustice, a non-profit organization of lawyers and scientists, filed the lawsuit on behalf of the David Suzuki Foundation, Environmental Defence, Greenpeace Canada, International Fund for Animal Welfare, the Raincoast Conservation Foundation, and the Wilderness Committee.
The lawsuit is seeking judicial confirmation that the government's reliance on a range of voluntary mechanisms such as guidelines, pamphlets, and codes of conduct, cannot effectively protect the mammals, Tessaro said.
"That kind of [judicial] confirmation at the end of the day would provide the government with a serious incentive to start protecting critical habitat of whales and other endangered species."
Killer whales face many serious threats throughout their habitat on the B.C coast such as declining salmon stocks, increased boat traffic, toxic contamination, and acoustic impacts from dredging, said Lance Barrett-Lennard, co-chairman of the DFO's Resident Killer Whale Recovery Team.
Barrett-Lennard agrees that legislation is necessary to ensure endangered and threatened killer whales are protected.
"If the response by the [fisheries] minister stands, it effectively means that nothing has to be done under the Species at Risk Act to protect killer whales, so it's a hard pill to swallow," he said.
DFO officials in Vancouver have not replied to a CBC News request for an interview Wednesday.
"DFO's decision not to protect critical habitat of resident killer whale is symptomatic of the federal government's widespread failure to implement the Species at Risk Act, "said Gwen Barlee, policy director of the Wilderness Committee.
Bill Wareham, a marine scientist with the David Suzuki Foundation, said more needs to be done to protect an estimated 87 killer whales that remain on the B.C. coast.
"To truly protect killer whales' critical habitat, Canada needs to legally protect areas that serve the killer whales basic needs for food and rest," he said.
"Comprehensive marine use plans that include new protected areas are essential if we hope to recover populations of these magnificent whales."