Fin in the House: Southern Resident Killer Whales need immediate action, not another study

    Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise in the House to speak on Motion No. 154, which reads:

      That the Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans be instructed to undertake a study on the situation of endangered whales and be mandated to (i) identify steps that could be taken to better protect and help the recovery of right, beluga, and killer whales, (ii) identify immediate and longer term improvements limiting the impact of human activities on each of these species and, by so doing, add to recovery efforts and to recommendations for new or enhanced actions, (iii) call expert witnesses on each of the species, hearing from those who might be impacted by any possible actions, and working to find a balance among various competing claims; and that the Committee present its final report to the House within four months of the adoption of this motion.

    While I support the intention of the motion, I believe it may be too little too late, and certainly for some whales. The government needs to take action on protecting the most vulnerable species immediately, not wait for the outcome of a committee study.

    As everyone knows, I am from the west coast, and the situation facing our iconic southern resident killer whales is dire. In 1997, the Squamish Nation bestowed an amazing responsibility on me. They gave me the name Iyim Yewyews, which means “strong swimmer in the animal world” or “orca, blackfish”. I wear this name proudly and with a lot of responsibility. They gave me this name because of the work I do on salmon. They realized that if the salmon are plentiful, the orca, which feeds on the salmon, will also be plentiful. We know that is not the case.

    Again, I take this very seriously. Southern resident killer whales were listed as endangered under the Species at Risk Act in 2003. By 2016, only 76 individual whales, 23 of them female, remained in this population. Recovery is still possible, if the government stops dragging its heels and takes immediate action.

    On March 15, the minister announced funding for research, but that funding will not help them today. Environmental organizations have joined together to call on the government to issue an emergency order under the Species at Risk Act to provide emergency protection, but the government has failed to act. I joined that call by asking for an emergency order for these whales in the House on March 21, 2018.

    The situation is critical. We do not have decades to fix the problem. We do not even have years to fix the problem. These whales do not need another study; they need swift and immediate action. A steady decline in chinook salmon, combined with disturbances from vessels, which interferes with the whales' ability to hunt and communicate, has put this iconic species at serious risk of malnutrition and starvation. The orcas cannot find food, let alone reproduce. There has not been a single southern resident orca calf reported to have been born since early 2016, until just last week. A single calf has been spotted—a glimmer of hope.

    Shipping activity and oil and gas development cause noise that can disturb and even damage their hearing and communication. This disturbance prevents them from using critical feeding and breeding grounds, and it disrupts their migratory path. A recent study found that southern resident orcas lose up to 97% of their ability to communicate with each other because of noise pollution, making Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain pipeline and the associated oil tankers it will bring a direct threat to the killer whale population. The pipeline project will bring an increase in oil tanker traffic to the west coast, along with a corresponding increase in noise. Even if by some miracle the project goes completely according to plan and there are no oil spills or ship strikes, the increase in noise alone significantly puts this species at risk of extinction.

    Southern resident killer whales use sounds in order to establish and maintain critical life functions. They use them to navigate, find and select mates, maintain their social network, and to locate and capture prey. The current level of ocean noise has already degraded critical habitat, and studies suggest that it has reduced their feeding efficiency. The 76 southern resident killer whales desperately need action by the government to reduce the immediate threats they are facing today, including the impact that the pipeline project may have on their ability to recover.

    In March of this year, Washington State issued an executive order with time-bound measures to benefit southern resident killer whales, including actions concerning fisheries, whale-watching vessels, and state ferries. The Species at Risk Act has a process for the federal government to enact a similar emergency order, and I encourage them to do so without delay.

     Speaking to DeSmog Canada about the recent Liberal announcement of more research to help the southern resident killer whale, Paul Paquet, adjunct professor at the University of Victoria and senior scientist with Raincoast Conservation Foundation said, “We could study them literally to death at this point.”

     Misty MacDuffee, a biologist with Raincoast said, “What we’re really looking for from the federal government right now is threat reductions.” She went on to state, “We've been waiting and waiting for the government to take some sort of action that would at least contribute to the protection of killer whales, but none has been taken to date." They need action now, rather than waiting for yet another study to be complete and say the same thing.

     President and CEO of WWF-Canada, Megan Leslie, agrees. In an op-ed in the Hill Times on April 20, she said, “While funding for technology and research is important, a cash infusion alone won't feed the 76 orcas facing extinction today.” She described the situation as an “emergency of the tallest order” and recommended immediate action, including “protection of feeding areas from fishing and disturbance by recreational/whale watching vessels, speed reductions for commercial vessels to reduce noise pollution in and near feeding areas, and chinook salmon catch reductions for the health of both species.” She said, “All of these [measures] need to be in place by late spring [of this year] when the orcas return to feed.” The clock is ticking. The minister must take immediate action.

    The situation is not much better on the Atlantic coast. On March 16 of this year, the CBC reported that there has not been a single North Atlantic right whale calf spotted this year. That is an unprecedented and alarming sign for this critically endangered species. Usually, mothers and calves making their way north toward Atlantic Canada are spotted by the end of February, but halfway through March, there had not been a single calf sighted, for the very first time. The North Atlantic right whale is highly endangered. There are only about 450 of them left, 100 of them females.

     Between April and November of 2017, at least 16 North Atlantic right whales died, 12 of them in Canadian waters. At least three of those had been entangled in fishing gear, and four showed evidence of blunt force trauma, which was most likely from a ship strike.

    The 16 deaths represent more than 3.5% of the population. To put that in perspective, that would be the equivalent of about 1.25 million Canadians suddenly dying over seven months.

    On April 20, speaking to the The Washington Post about North Atlantic right whales, marine biologist Charles Mayo, said:

  ...climate change seems to be shifting the animals' food source. Their habitat has been polluted with sewage and made noisy by construction and seismic tests. Speeding ships and tangles of hard-to-break fishing rope pose deadly threats. New technology and tightened regulations could protect the whales from some of the big hazards.

  ...the whales are a metaphor for what we have done to the planet.

    Painfully, I agree. This is shameful. The situation is critical. We do not need the fisheries and oceans committee to tell us that. Scientists have already proved that. We need immediate action. They want immediate action. Protecting them is in the national interest.