Conservation groups are concerned with a report that recommends downgrading the protected status of Pacific fin whales and what it could mean for the species.
Currently, Pacific fin whales are classified as “threatened” because there are estimated to be fewer than 1,000 mature whales in Canadian waters.
The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) is considering reclassifying the whales as a species of “special concern” because it says populations of the whale in American waters are increasing, which may benefit the Canadian population.
“If the fin whale (Pacific) is reclassified from threatened to special concern, prohibitions to kill, harm, harass, possess, collect, buy, sell or trade an individual would no longer apply under [the Species at Risk Act],” the fin whale reclassification consultation document says.
The Atlantic population of the fin whale has been listed as “special concern” since 2006.
A downgrading of status would also mean there would no longer be a recovery plan for the species, nor any protections for the whales’ known habitats, says Jackie Hildering, communications and education director of the Marine Education and Research Society.
Hildering, who is also a humpback whale researcher, says the more elusive fin whales should be kept at their current classification because there’s not enough data to prove the population has sufficiently recovered from generations of whaling.
She also says there is no definitive proof fin whales that frequent B.C. — they’re known to be found in the waters off western and southern Vancouver Island, Queen Charlotte Sound, Hecate Strait and Dixon Entrance — belong to the same population as those found in the U.S.
“This is anti-precautionary. We live in a system where threats are increasing generally because of the uncertainty of the climate,” Hildering said.
“But on top of that these fin whales, as big baleen whales, as is the case with humpbacks, they are so susceptible to vessel strike. In fact, they are known to be the species that is the most susceptible to vessel strike, and we are increasing large vessel traffic on our coast.”
The COSEWIC report itself acknowledges that ship strikes are a “significant” contributor of human-cased deaths to fin whales with multiple cases documented of vessels docking with carcasses on their bows.
“Many fatal vessel strikes may be unreported as animals struck and killed are likely to sink and go undetected,” the report adds.
Hildering says that, combined with a potential increase in LNG tankers in B.C. as well as a general increase in global shipping traffic, means protections are being removed at the same time the threat to the species is increasing.
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Eric Keen, whale researcher and science director with the North Coast Cetacean Society, says he does not believe data supports reclassifying the whales at this time.
“Our concern is that the decision to downlist fin whales and remove some of their protections is too soon,” Keen said. “It doesn’t align with the data we have and the evidence we have concerning their status in Canadian waters.”
He says the population of these whales is still reduced due to the impact of industrial whaling, which ended in the mid-1970s.
“The COSEWIC assessment that suggests this down listing thinks that they’re still 30 to 40 per cent of what they used to be,” Keen said. “Fin whales used to be the most numerous baleen whale in Canadian waters. So one of the most important whales to the ocean system.”
Fisheries and Oceans Canada is conducting a survey to ask for feedback on the plan to reclassify the whales, and responses are being accepted until Dec. 2.
MERS is hoping more British Columbians will speak up for a mysterious species that may not be as well known as the southern resident orcas and humpbacks more commonly sighted by Vancouver Islanders.
“This is the second biggest species in the world,” Hildering said. “They’re coming back from the brink. It really, really matters that you let your voice be heard to say, we don’t know enough, there isn’t the science to support reducing protection, and that you take a stand for that because it’s about these giant whales, but it’s about so much more than that.”