VANCOUVER -- Humpback whales were removed from Canada's species-at-risk list Tuesday, a decision some scientists allege was fast-tracked under political pressure just ahead of a federal decision on Enbridge’s Northern Gateway pipeline.
“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 (Northern Gateway) is approved this summer.”
The decision to downgrade the species from “threatened” to “special concern” came only four months after the federal Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife (COSEWIC) upheld its original recommendation. Normally such decisions take about 10 years, said the WWF.
“Humpback whales present a real problem for Northern Gateway,” said 15-year marine biologist Misty MacDuffee, with Raincoast Conservation Foundation. “I think there was political influence — not based on sound scientific information about threats that are only increasing. As soon as it's down-listed, you don't have to protect that critical habitat.”
MacDuffee accused the federal government of “hiding behind” the committee in its push for increased tanker traffic.
But committee chairwoman Dr. Marty Leonard told QMI Agency concerns about the organization's independence are misplaced, even though nominees to the arm's-length organization's board must be federally approved.
“There's no political interference,” Leonard said. “We were not talking about what the implications might be if it's listed or not — that's not part of our job. We're just focused on the science side of it, looking at biological factors of the risk of extinction.”
But MacDuffee questioned the committee’s claims about political independence.
“That used to be true, but they actually asked for feedback on this decision — the feedback they got was for not delisting them — and they went ahead and did it anyway,” MacDuffee said.
Trevor Swerdfager, Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) assistant deputy minister for ecosystems and fisheries, defended COSEWIC and disputed accusations of interference.
“They're not in the pocket of the government or doing what they were told to,” Swerdfager said. “Once a species is on the list, it's not frozen in amber or locked in time — things change. This is good news: this species is on the road to recovery, but it's still not out of woods, there's still reason for special concern.”
Jackie Hildering, a researcher and educator with the Marine Education and Research Society, has spent 10 years tracking humpback populations off northeast Vancouver Island. She disputed COSEWIC's findings that there is only a single humpback population in B.C.'s waters, which would downplay risks.
“The most fundamental things about the risks these animals face aren't known,” she said. “We also question whether the genetic work has been done to justify the down-listing.”
University of B.C. marine biologist Andrew Trites, a member of COSEWIC, stood by the decision, but admitted the speed it was translated into law was surprising.
“There's a case to be made that politics are moving this one through faster,” he said. “The Canadian government seems to be slow to list species we'd consider threatened or endangered, but they seem much faster when we go the opposite direction.”