Lawsuit Launched in Canada to Protect West Coast’s Endangered Orcas

Conservationists are taking legal action in Canada to get the government to take emergency action to protect beloved, and highly endangered orcas on the west coast.

These orcas, otherwise known as the southern resident killer whales (SRKW), live in three distinct pods (J,K and L), in the Pacific Northwest. They’re genetically and culturally distinct from other orcas, but they’re also living on the brink.

Even with years of protection in the U.S. under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), and in Canada under the Species at Risk Act (SARA), they’ve yet to make a comeback. Today, with only 75 individual members left in existence in the wild, their population is the lowest it’s been in 30 years.

Less than a month ago, their plight was highlighted by the heartbreaking story of a mother from the J pod who carried her dead calf for an unprecedented 17 days in what became known as a ‘tour of grief.’

The incident garnered international attention and increased calls for action to help them survive among the ongoing threats they face, ranging from pollution and disturbances to one of their biggest problems yet, a lack of their main food source – Chinook salmon.

That issue is also now also playing out in the spotlight as officials intervene to save J50, a young calf who is in seriously poor condition.

Earlier this year, the Canadian government was petitioned to take emergency action to protect them, which it has the authority to do under SARA for species at imminent risk, but it has failed to take meaningful action.

Now, six conservation organizations have launched a lawsuit asking the Federal Court to review the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans and Minister of Environment and Climate Change’s failure to recommend an emergency order in an effort to compel the government to do something to mitigate the threats they face.

“In her unprecedented 17-days of mourning, J-35, the killer whale also known as Tahlequah, showed us the devastating consequences of inaction on this issue. Her calf survived only half an hour, following three years of unsuccessful births in the population,” said Ecojustice lawyer Dyna Tuytel. “Given Minister Wilkinson and Minister McKenna’s failure to recommend emergency protections in a timely fashion, we have little choice but to turn to the courts.”

In May, Environment Minister Catherine McKenna and then Fisheries Minister Dominic LeBlanc said the population faces “an imminent threat to both survival and recovery.” According to the organizations behind the latest legal action, since the ministers acknowledged this, they are now legally required to issue an emergency order that would speed up addressing threats they now face.

“Emergency orders are specifically designed for circumstances like this, when you have a species that needs more than delayed plans and half-measures to survive and recover,” said Christianne Wilhelmson, the executive director of the Georgia Strait Alliance. “Securing an order is vital for the Southern Residents and their habitat, which is also home to an estimated 3,000 species of marine life.”

Meanwhile in the U.S. advocates for these orcas are also taking action and urging officials to breach four deadbeat dams on the Lower Snake River to help restore salmon and steelhead runs in the Pacific Northwest.

Doing that could be started now without further study or delay by using the 2002 Lower Snake River Environmental Impact Statement, which concluded dam breaching is the best way to help recover salmon on the Snake River, which produces half of the salmon found in the Columbia Basin.

“These killer whales are not finding enough of their preferred prey, Chinook salmon, which are also in decline. Noise and physical disturbance from vessels hinders the whales’ ability to hunt. Southern Residents remain at risk of malnutrition unless we act now to rebuild the Chinook salmon population and address these imminent threats immediately,” said Jay Ritchlin, director-general for Western Canada at David Suzuki Foundation.

Hopefully legal action and continued public pressure will result in urgent and meaningful action taken on behalf of these orcas before it’s too late.

How to Help

You can help by signing and sharing the petition urging Governor Jay Inslee and the Southern Resident Killer Whale Task Force to take immediate action to breach the four Lower Snake River dams.

Photo credit: Rachael Merrett/Georgia Strait Alliance

56 comments

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John J4 months ago

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Veronica Danie9 months ago

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Veronica Danie9 months ago

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Lorraine A
Lorraine A9 months ago

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