Recently, scientists discovered that humpback whales, previously thought to sing only in their breeding grounds in Hawaii and Mexico, sing in the waters of B.C.’s Great Bear Rainforest.
Once common in B.C.’s coastal waterways, humpback whales disappeared almost completely from these waters in the mid 1900s after extensive hunting, and were rarely seen again in B.C. until 1980. While the local humpback population is making a slow yet remarkable comeback, Pacific humpback whales are still a threatened species, legally protected by the Species at Risk Act (SARA).
Unfortunately, when it comes to species at risk, the federal government seems not to take its legal obligations all that seriously. Recently, Sierra Club B.C. and four other organizations, represented by Ecojustice, took the government to court for failing to protect Pacific humpback whales, marbled murrelets, Nechako white sturgeon, and southern mountain caribou. On February 14, the court ruled federal ministers broke the law by delaying recovery strategies for these four species as mandated by SARA.
The judge described the case as “just the tip of the iceberg” of “an enormous systemic problem” within the federal government, citing the fact that more than 160 species at risk across Canada still await overdue recovery strategies. In the case of the Pacific humpback, the final recovery strategy was only released last October, more than four and a half years past its due date, and was not considered by the Enbridge Northern Gateway Joint Review Panel.
The proposed Enbridge pipeline would bring over 225 tankers a year to B.C.’s waterways, cutting directly through critical humpback habitat, as the belated recovery strategy clearly shows. The strategy also outlines the threats posed to this critical habitat by increased vessel traffic, including shipping noise and threat of toxic spills.
It seems an inconvenient truth that oil tankers and humpback whales cannot co-exist. However, because the federal government delayed the release of the humpback recovery strategy, the Northern Gateway pipeline proposal slid through regulatory review without all available scientific data being considered.
It’s hard to question the importance of protecting endangered species. Our world is a richer place for the diversity that exists within it—our medicines more effective, our tourism industry more profitable, our well-being enhanced.
Canadians historically have recognized this value and passed laws decreeing the importance and urgency of protecting species at risk. We have then relied on scientists to offer up the best available information for how to do so.
Our current government seems to disregard the value of scientific inquiry. In the last two years, the government has slashed funding of scientists; closed scientific libraries; gutted environmental regulations; and transferred primary responsibility for fish habitat along pipeline corridors from the scientists at the Department of Fisheries and Oceans to the pipeline-friendly National Energy Board.
These moves appear to be a deliberate attempt to disregard science-based environmental concerns in an almighty push for resource development.
Where does it lead us if we pay no heed to scientific warnings? Without the guidance of science, we might still be putting asbestos in our walls or bisphenol in our children’s sippy-cups. Collecting scientific data and using it to inform policy and legislation is not an ideological or partisan concern. It is plain common sense.
It’s time the federal government started following their own laws and using science for thorough and informed decision-making. We need the work of biologists, climate scientists, agronomists, and hydrologists, among others, as we make decisions that will affect our environment, at-risk species, and human health long into the future.
We have already lost many species and pushed many more, like the singing humpbacks of the Great Bear Rainforest, to the very edge of extinction. If our scientists become a species at risk themselves, how are we going to preserve what we have left?