A breaching humpback whale. The species grows to 14 metres in length and can weigh 25 to 40 tonnes.

Humpback whale no longer ‘threatened’ species

Critics say federal move aids proposed oil pipeline projects by removing critical habitat protection

Environmental groups are denouncing the federal government’s decision to downgrade endangered species protection for North Pacific humpback whales.

The whales will now be listed as a “species of special concern” rather than “threatened” under Canada’s Species at Risk Act.

The federal government will no longer be bound to protect the humpback’s critical habitat as a result, which critics say removes an obstacle for the Northern Gateway oil pipeline project.

“The federal government is excusing itself from any legal obligation to protect humpback whale habitat, which conveniently makes it easier to approve the Enbridge pipeline and oil tanker proposal,” said Sierra Club campaigns director Caitlyn Vernon.

“The continued recovery of humpback whales is completely incompatible with a massive increase in oil tanker traffic on B.C.’s coast, which is what they will face if the Enbridge and Kinder Morgan pipeline and tanker proposals proceed.”

Ottawa’s decision cites a significant rebound in humpback populations identified in a 2011 assessment by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC).

“Growth rates have increased, leading to an improved abundance of the species,” it says, noting COSEWIC agreed humpbacks can now be reclassified.

COSEWIC found humpback numbers have grown four per cent a year since the early 1990s and are up more than 50 per cent over the last three generations, or about 65 years, to more than 18,000 adult whales.

“While the species’ situation has improved tremendously over the last five decades, current numbers are still considerably smaller than the number that must have been present off the west coast of Vancouver Island before 1905,” the decision said.

Residual threats also in part led COSEWIC to give humpbacks “special concern” status because they are “a recovering wildlife species no longer considered to be threatened but not yet clearly secure.”

Commercial hunting of humpbacks ended in 1966.

About 13 of 22 respondents to government consultations on the issue opposed the downgrade, arguing humpback populations are still fragile and that there would be less to deter industry from harming them.

The whales are considered vulnerable to vessel strikes, entanglement in fishing gear and being disturbed by underwater noise.

Critics say potential impacts will climb with a rise in tanker traffic and other industrial activity on the B.C. coast.

The provincial government supported the change.

Other regulations protecting whales will still apply and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans would be required to complete a new management plan for humpbacks within three years.