Environmentalists are taking the Canadian government to court, demanding it use the country's Species at Risk Act to protect killer whales off British Columbia.
Ecojustice, on behalf of eight environmental organizations, filed notice Wednesday in Federal Court of a lawsuit to force officials to use the legislation to safeguard the habitat of southern and northern resident killer whales, listed as endangered and threatened, respectively.
The move is in reaction to a notice posted by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans on the Species at Risk Act registry last month contending that orcas, commonly known as killer whales, are already protected by other laws, regulations and guidelines.
The environmentalists want the government to take specific steps to protect killer whales, including making some areas off limits to vessel traffic and closing some salmon fisheries to preserve stocks that the whales eat.
No one from the department was immediately available to comment on the suit.
Pods have distinct cultural and genetic identities
Lara Tessaro, a lawyer with Ecojustice, formerly the Sierra Legal Defense Fund, called the action unprecedented.
"Resident killer whales are among B.C.'s most iconic and treasured marine species," Tessaro said.
Resident killer whales don't migrate long distances but range over specific areas off the Pacific Coast and Vancouver Island, feeding on local fish. The pods have distinct cultural and genetic identities.
The groups says the southern resident orcas suffered a 20 percent decline between 1993 and 2003 before recovering slightly. They are listed as endangered, with only about 80 whales remaining.
Northern resident whales — totaling about 205 — are considered threatened after dropping by 7 percent in recent years.
Tessaro said the declines are due to threats to the whales' habitat, including dredging, pollution, trawling, tanker traffic, military sonar tests, seismic testing and a decline in salmon stocks.
Interest groups have been talking to the fisheries department but Tessaro said its Sept. 10 posting on the various laws protecting whale habitat — based on a March 2008 document outlining a recovery strategy — amounted to a rejection of environmentalists' concerns.