Canada recently announced its intention to downgrade the humpback whale from “threatened” to “a species of special concern.” Researchers and environmental groups agree that the animal’s population has improved but continue to debate some of the motivations and science behind the government’s decision.
Humpback whales are one of the largest marine giants in the world, most famous for their unique hunting tactics and distinctive songs. However, commercial whaling during the first half of the 20th century reduced the North Pacific humpback population to less than 1,400 whales. Legal protections for the animal and ongoing conservation efforts have since helped the total population rebound to about 20,000 whales. The federal environment minister’s recent proposal to reduce the whales’ status comes shortly before Canada’s anticipated June decision about the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline Project — a multi-billion dollar proposal to build a twin pipeline system from Alberta to a marine terminal in British Columbia. The project is expected to increase oil tanker traffic in waters bordering the whales’ critical habitat. The humpbacks’ status change means that the government is no longer required to protect the critical habitat.
“This really should be a good-news story. Instead it’s been spun as though something evil has been done,” said Andrew Trites, a professor and the Director of the Marine Mammal Research Unit at the University of British Columbia. “The reality is that it shows that with proper protections … and wise decisions, these populations can recover.”
But several environmental groups remain suspicious about the decision. Some of their main concerns include the timing of the decision, how the impending pipeline could impact the whales’ recovery, and whether or not the humpback population should have been considered as two distinct groups during the species’ reassessment.
Timing of Downlisting
Species protected by the Species at Risk Act (SARA) have to be reevaluated every 10 years in Canada. However, this reassessment can occur earlier if data surfaces that a species is declining — or improving, in the case of the humpback whale.
The original reevaluation of humpback whales was completed in 2011, several years before the required deadline. Environmental groups are suspicious about what initiated this early reassessment because of its overlap with critical decisions about the Northern Gateway Pipelines. “Now, why that happened and who was responsible for initiating that reassessment — that’s been unclear,” said Paul Paquet, the Senior Scientist for Raincoast Conservation Foundation and a former member of The Wildlife Society. “But it did seem to coincide with a lot of other things that were happening — in particular, the applications for pipelines and the transport of oil to the coast and along the coast.”
The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) is the independent scientific advisory board that assesses at-risk species in Canada. Wildlife biologists and professionals from different fields and institutions work together to make a recommendation about a species’ status to the federal government. Andrew Trites serves on the COSEWIC subcommittee that helped make the recommendation for the humpback whales’ downlisting. He says that COSEWIC uses a set of established criteria such as the population’s rate of change or its distribution to reevaluate a species’ status. “The group does not make their decisions [based on] politics or economic considerations. It’s based entirely on the biology of the species and the risks that they are faced with,” he said.
Paquet says that he doesn’t question the integrity of the researchers that made the downlisting recommendation, but he does question the politics behind the reassessment and the speed at which the decision has been propelled through the federal government. Raincoast Conservation Foundation and other environmental groups have an ongoing lawsuit against the pipeline’s construction. The government’s responsibility to protect the humpbacks’ critical habitat was one important piece of the lawsuit. The whales’ status change means the government no longer has this legal obligation. This requirement could also lower the costs of some businesses previously required to help protect the whales’ critical habitat. Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans will have three years to create a new plan for how to manage the species.
Pipeline’s Potential Impact on Whales
Environmental groups also worry that the increased oil tanker traffic from the pipeline will threaten the species’ recovery. More ships could mean acoustic disturbance or physical displacement of the whales from their habitat. The traffic may also increase the risk of an oil spill or result in ships striking the whales.
Previous studies off the coast of Alaska have shown that humpback whales do change their behavior in response to ships. Whales may temporarily abandon preferred habitats or become diverted from regular feeding activities. What’s uncertain is whether these events will have a big enough impact on the whales to hinder their ongoing recovery.
Trites points out that the whales’ remarkable recovery the last few decades occurred despite the high ship traffic along the Western Coast. While oil spills may present a threat, he believes effects of ships alone should be minimal. “I can’t see it having an impact on the humpback whale population,” he . “In the case of the humpback, it’s a species that can coexist with people. I think it’s something to celebrate and we should be focused on the other species that are not recovering as fast or showing any signs at all.”
Multiple Humpback Populations?
Some researchers are also questioning the scientific reasoning behind COSEWIC’s recommendation to downgrade the whales’ status. A genetic study published last year suggested that the North Pacific humpbacks on Canada’s West Coast might actually be composed of two distinct groups. The northern humpback group is doing very well, but the southern-most group is still struggling. “This [group] is a much smaller population in a smaller area that’s heavily depleted by whaling, and it certainly doesn’t seem like it’s recovered to anywhere near its pre-whaling numbers.” said John Calambokidis, a Senior Research Biologist, co-Founder of Cascadia Research, and one of the leading authors on the study. Calambokidis thinks the northern group may have merited downlisting, but questions the decision for the southern group.
Trites says that COSEWIC seriously considered whether or not to count the humpback population as two distinct groups. “At this point, the collective opinion of the committee was that the available data were not strong enough to support splitting the [British Columbia] population into two,” he said. They believe these distinct populations may actually be more blended than originally thought.
But other scientists — including Paquet and Calambokidis — still disagree. “I think the science is pretty clear, but how to apply it to the policy and the laws is not always straightforward,” Calambokidis said.
In the United States, the North Pacific humpback population is listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. However, two states filed petitions over the last year for the delisting of the species. Last August, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced they were beginning to reassess the species’ endangered status. Calambokidis says that NOAA will also have to consider whether to recognize distinct humpback subgroups and how to incorporate this into future management plans. “The U.S. will also be grappling with that and I’m very hopeful that they will do so giving better consideration to the separate [humpback populations],” he said.
Despite their differences, wildlife researchers do seem to agree on one thing. “I think the important thing is … that these whales are doing better than they were previously. I think that often gets lost,” Paquet said. He said that these ongoing arguments could just be part of the scientific process. “You know, people forget scientists love to disagree with each other, anyway. That’s really the way science works — incrementally. It’s self-correcting through criticism.” Time and further studies may help clarify some of these disagreements and determine how to best manage humpback populations.
This article was originally published at The Wildlife Society, May 9, 2014.