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Why Canada Shouldn’t Have Taken Humpback Whales Off the Endangered Species List

The humpback whale faces less protection now that it's been downgraded from “threatened” to “special concern status.”

by David Ball
Apr 29 2014, 12:13pm

Photo via A. Davey

This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.

The Canadian government’s announcement that it's knocking humpback whales off its endangered species list has critics pulling their “Save the whales!” signs from the 1980s out of storage.

While the decision to remove the marine giants — known for their amazing group air-bubble fishing and haunting long-distance singing — from the list may sound like positive news, it comes only months ahead of a final decision on the widely despised Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline — an $8-billion proposal that has already faced a lawsuit alleging possible oil spills and tanker accidents would endanger threatened species.

One of those species named in the suit is the humpback, an animal that faces less protection now that it's been downgraded from “threatened” to “special concern status.”

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The move has many whale scientists scratching their heads — even one who sat on Canada's Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife (COSEWIC), the government-appointed “independent” body whose data on whale populations was used to change the classification.

That particular Washington State expert is research biologist John Calambokidis — whose 30 years of research was cited repeatedly in the Department Fisheries and Oceans own humpback recovery plan just last year.

He told me he disagreed with the decision, and was baffled as to why the committee decided to ignore “very strong” evidence of at least two distinct whale sub-groups.

That's right: while the data shows an overall “dramatic increase” of between five to seven percent of humpbacks on the B.C. coast since the population was decimated by commercial whaling decades ago, many researchers insist that a smaller, genetically unique southern group faces a greater level of risk of extinction.

Calambokidis's data was in fact the basis for the government's own most recent population numbers.

In the mid-2000s, he sat on the COSEWIC marine mammal subcommittee, which advised the species be de-listed, and though as a whole it might be doing well, there are segments of the whale population that are still very much in trouble.

“I do not think the southern B.C. and Washington units should be down-listed from threatened at this time,” said the biologist who currently works with Cascadia Research Collective in Washington. “It doesn't make reasonable sense to me.. I'm disappointed to find out after the fact. I wish there had been more of an attempt at dialogue.”

Marty Leonardis is a Nova Scotian biologist and the chairwoman of COSEWIC. She insisted their assessments are based only on “the best available scientific knowledge,” as well as aboriginal and community input.

In 2011, the organization recommended “special concern” status for North Pacific humpbacks, based on the fact that their population had boomed to more than 18,000 (compared to the mid-1960s when it was estimated there were fewer than 1,500).

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But when critics argued there are at least two sub-populations — one vacationing annually in Hawaii, the smaller one to Mexico — the government sent it back to COSEWIC's subcommittee to review, Leonard explained.

“They looked at the evidence for two distinct populations,” she told me. “Their conclusion at end of it was there wasn't enough evidence to support separating that population into two distinct populations...Our decision to assess humpbacks as a single population is what we were standing by.”

Leonard also said that there is “no political interference” in the scientific organization, and that Northern Gateway pipeline had nothing to do with the fact that humpbacks have simply made a miraculous recovery in recent decades.

“The discussion is strictly related to the risk of extinction,” she said. “Nobody brings up political things or what happens if we list it this way…Keeping the science separate from other concerns — whether social, economic or political — is extremely important. We don't want to mix them up with the risk of extinction to a species.”

However, that's not the way some other scientists see it at all, particularly since humpbacks have still only recovered to roughly half their pre-whaling numbers.

“The decision by the federal government is politically motivated,” said Misty MacDuffee, a marine biologist of 15 years, “but they're able to hide behind COSEWIC. They made their 2011 decision in the middle of Northern Gateway hearings. We're halfway [to where populations once were], but we're going to make a decision now when we know that stressors on the population are going to increase?”

MacDuffee, who works with the Raincoast Conservation Foundation, said evidence of more than one humpback group in B.C. is convincing. But even if COSEWIC doesn't buy the two-group theory, it’s still questionable that humpbacks are being de-listed.

“When you've got a species with [growth] numbers as slow as they were after commercial whaling,” she said, “50 percent does not by any scientific criteria meet the goals of recovery. If that's what they're using to define recovery, it's clearly inadequate.”

One current member of the 11-member COSEWIC subcommittee stands by its decision, and said there's simply too much disagreement on the existence of a more vulnerable southern population.

“It's the right decision,” he said. “They no longer met the criteria for being threatened…The science was divided on whether or not we have one humpback population or two in B.C. If there's a bone of contention, that's what it's about — not about whether the correct decision was made.”

He said the subcommittee carefully reviewed the research on whale genetics and migration patterns, but that “there is not a clear line” to separate the populations, but rather “a bleeding of animals as you move north.”

On a fundamental level, former subcommittee member Calambokidis disagrees with that assessment, pointing to his recent peer-reviewed research, part of what he called the “most comprehensive” humpback investigation ever, involving roughly 400 scientists over three years.

“The differences between northern B.C. and southern B.C. are pretty dramatic, actually,” he said. “The evidence is very strong… It's a very clear conclusion last year that represents very strong evidence that should be taken into account. Genetics are usually a pretty high bar—you're talking about patterns that have existed over extended periods of time to allow genetic differences to take hold. This is not a borderline statistical call.”

Several other scientists approached for this article agreed the evidence is overwhelming that southern B.C. is home to a unique group of humpbacks that return to the same feeding grounds year after year — the same ones their mothers brought them to, and these are the ones that are at risk.

But with the DFO's own website warning that humpbacks “face potential risks from exposure to significantly higher numbers of oil spills due to increased tanker traffic in coastal areas,” many are simply shaking their heads at what seems to be a brazen move to eliminate one major barrier to oil tankers and pipelines: endangered humpbacks' habitat.

“The timing is just odd,” said Linda Nowlan, World Wide Fund for Nature Canada's conservation director. “We're wondering why the federal government is reducing protection now, just as the threats are poised to skyrocket if Enbridge's Northern Gateway pipeline is approved this summer."

Follow David P. Ball on Twitter: @davidpball

Photo via Flickr