Not just tankers at fault, says federal oceans minister, defending whale protection strategy

The Canadian government is under the spotlight for its handling of B.C.'s endangered southern resident killer whales but the federal minister responsible for oceans says environmentalists are missing the big picture when it comes to protecting the species.

Lawsuit argues Canadian government should do more to protect southern resident killer whales

Jonathan Wilkinson says other boating traffic, like B.C. Ferries and recreational vessels, are also a problem. (C. Emmons/NOAA Fisheries)

The Canadian government is under the spotlight for its handling of B.C.'s endangered southern resident killer whales, but the federal minister responsible for oceans says environmentalists are missing the big picture when it comes to protecting the species.

Six conservation groups filed a lawsuit in Federal Court on Wednesday, arguing the government should have issued an emergency order to protect the province's resident killer whales.

"It's simply not true that there has not been action," said Jonathan Wilkinson, the minister of fisheries and oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard.

An oil tanker anchors at the terminus to the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline in Burnaby, B.C. (Chris Corday/CBC)

Tanker traffic

But the court found the National Energy Board did not adequately address the potential impact of a substantial increase in tanker traffic on the endangered species.

Wilkinson is adamant that tankers are only part of the problem.

"People who point to the tankers as the source of the problem for the killer whales, I think, fundamentally don't understand the problem," he said.

Wilkinson pointed to the few thousand large container ships that come into the harbour each year, the daily B.C. Ferries trips between the Lower Mainland and surrounding islands, and the tens of thousands of recreational vessels as equally problematic.

"Each one creates noise," he told Stephen Quinn, the host of CBC's The Early Edition.

"If we are going to recover the southern resident killer whale, we need to take action that will mitigate noise from all of those sources, not simply six or seven tankers coming out of the terminal every week."

Six conservation groups have filed a lawsuit in Federal Court over the Canadian government's failure to issue an emergency order to protect B.C.'s endangered southern resident killer whales. ((CBC))

Population struggling to survive

Only 75 members of the population, which are genetically and behaviourally distinct from other killer whales, remain in the waters off the B.C. coast, and no successful births have been documented since 2015.

Wilkinson said noise disturbances — from any kind of vessel — are not the only issue harming the whales. Dwindling food sources, particularly chinook salmon and water contaminants also play a role.

The national $167-million Whales Action Plan, announced earlier this year, addresses some of those issues by restricting chinook fisheries, moving shipping lanes and implementing vessel slowdowns and funding for research.

"Addressing species at risk generally across the country is a critical issue for the government," Wilkinson said.

"The government has made enormous strides with respect to putting in place the measures that are required for an effective recovery plan [for the whales]."

The Canadian government is in the spotlight for its handling of B.C.'s endangered southern resident killer whales but the federal minister responsible for oceans says environmentalists are missing the big picture when it comes to protecting the species. 11:12

With files from The Early Edition.

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