UPDATED: Conservation groups sue Ottawa to protect endangered killer whales

Only 75 southern resident killer whales are still alive in the world, often near the B.C. coast

Six conservation groups are suing the federal government over the protection of southern resident killer whales, saying the ministers in charge haven’t done enough to keep the endangered species alive.

Lawyers asked the Federal Court to review the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans and Minister of Environment and Climate Change’s failure to recommend an emergency order to protect the whales, under the Species at Risk Act.

The application was filed Wednesday on behalf of the David Suzuki Foundation, Georgia Strait Alliance, Natural Resources Defense Council, Raincoast Conservation Foundation and World Wildlife Fund Canada.

“Emergency orders are specifically designed for circumstances like this, when you have a species that needs more than delayed plans and half-measures to survive and recover,” said Christianne Wilhelmson, executive director at the Georgia Strait Alliance, in a news conference on Wednesday in downtown Vancouver.

“Securing an order is vital for the southern residents and their habitat, which is also home to an estimated 3,000 species of marine life.”

The six groups have repeatedly called for the government to protect the killer whales, including through a petition issued in January.

Requests for comment to Fisheries Minister Jonathan Wilkinson and Environment Minister Catherine McKenna have not yet been returned.

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Southern resident killer whales are known to roam along the coastal waters from Vancouver Island to California.

The lawsuit comes less than a month after an orca mother gained international attention as she carried her deceased calf around on her nose for an unprecedented 17 days, as a way of grieving.

A young orca known as J50 has also been the focus of both U.S. and Canadian marine biologists after scientists determined she suffered from a disorder causing her to become severely emaciated and lethargic.

“We don’t want to start triaging individual orcas in order for this population to serve,” Wilhelmson said.

Conservationists have been meeting with the federal government since launching their petition, but Wilhelmson said not enough action has been taken.

In this Saturday, Aug. 11, 2018, photo released by the Center for Whale Research shows orca whales swimming near Friday Harbor, Alaska. J-35, in the foreground, chasing salmon with her pod on Saturday. The carcass of her newborn has likely sunk. (Center for Whale Research via AP)

The group has asked for whale watching to be banned, as well as the closure of all chinook salmon fisheries in foraging areas.

The government recently implemented a 200-metre mandatory threshold between vessels and orcas, and closed some – but not all – of the chinook fisheries in operation.

“They are doing these partial measures, which will make those measures ineffective,” Wilhelmson said. “Unless you do it across the board, you are going to weaken the impact.”

Other issues still not being dealt with, the group claimed, includes noise and disturbance issues from boats.

WATCH: Ailing orca J50 gets 2nd dart of antibiotics by B.C. vet

Last May, federal minister McKenna said the orcas face imminent threats to their survival and recovery. Since acknowledging the risk, the conservationists said, the ministers are now legally required to recommend Cabinet issue an emergency order under the Species at Risk Act, unless there are other legal measures already in place.

“It is shocking that Minister Wilkinson and Minister McKenna have not yet recommended an emergency order,” said Michael Jasny, director of marine mammal protection at Natural Resources Defense Council. “It is difficult to imagine a species in more urgent need.”


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