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Humpback whales are not ‘pawns’, Reclassification success: Decision to remove species from ‘threatened’ based on solid science


Humpback whales are not ‘pawns’

Reclassification success: Decision to remove species from ‘threatened’ based on solid science

Written by Andrea Ahrens for The Vancouver Sun, April 30, 2014 

Breaching Humpback Whale near Tofino, Vancouver Island, BC, Canada. Photograph by: Stuart Slavicky , Getty Images/iStockphoto

Breaching Humpback Whale near Tofino, Vancouver Island, BC, Canada.
Photograph by: Stuart Slavicky , Getty Images/iStockphoto

As conservation biologists, an irony of our work is that if we perform well, if our science is sound, and our programs achieve what we hope they’ll achieve, then ideally we’ll all be out of a job!

Don’t expect us to achieve that state anytime soon — there’s still much to do when it comes to species at risk, protected areas, and ecosystem stewardship. But every now and then, something really good happens. And that’s the case with the recent resurgence and resulting reclassification of the North Pacific humpback whale in Canada’s Species at Risk Act (SARA).

You may have heard that the federal environment minister recently accepted the recommendation of a group called the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) to reduce the humpback whale’s protection from “threatened” to “special concern.”

COSEWIC is an independent scientific body, empowered by legislation to employ the expertise of a broad range of specialists, from ecologists to geneticists, to make recommendations on the management of species at risk in Canada. The committee’s recommendations are guided by a well-defined set of internationally accepted, quantitative criteria, to keep the decision-making process transparent and defensible.

Despite the above, COSEWIC’s recent recommendation that humpback whales be reclassified has met with some criticism from opponents of the proposed Northern Gateway Pipeline project. Among other things, some critics say the reclassification is a political gift to pipeline proponents, and the “rush” to get the reclassification passed is partial proof of a process gone awry.

This criticism is misplaced. The whole point of COSEWIC is to ensure it provides the best advice possible, based on the most current scientific knowledge available, to ensure that SARA, in spite of its political oversight, makes science-based decisions. The fact the committee was developed as an independent body of scientific experts removes its deliberations entirely from the world of politics.

Some critics have recently said the reclassification of humpback whales has been rushed through the process. In fact, the need to update the previous 2003 status report was first brought before COSEWIC in 2009. This led to COSEWIC’s 2011 finding that the humpback whale population’s size and growth rate no longer qualified it as “threatened” (under the official COSEWIC criteria) and the species should be reclassified as “special concern.”

The 2014 enactment was not arrived at quickly.

Any time a previously depleted species becomes more abundant in its natural habitat, we should consider it a good-news story. We’re now seeing numerous humpback whales return to locations where we hadn’t seen them for years — in the Strait of Georgia, for example. Unfortunately, there’s always a chance that species such as the humpback whale become a bargaining chip in a political debate — a “pawn,” as a colleague put it recently in a news interview.

In this case, however, the positive news of a threatened species becoming less threatened has not been entirely lost on the news media. While various groups have expressed understandable concern about the implications of current and future threats, it is important to recognize that COSEWIC had the option to reclassify the species to “not at risk” and that a listing of “special concern” explicitly recognizes the need for threats and stressors to be effectively managed.

While COSEWIC’s decision-making process has been long and thorough, and by necessity remained entirely removed from any political analysis of the Northern Gateway project, the reclassification and resulting “delisting” of critical habitat only serve to make the project proponent’s voluntary commitments all the more important.

It’s also important the various government agencies, academic research groups, marine scientists, and environmental non-profit organizations on our coast continue their work at identifying threats, helping to develop effective mitigation measures, and raising industry standards. After all, it’s the great scientific work of these groups that allowed COSEWIC to come to this decision in the first place.

Perhaps new science will emerge, and COSEWIC will have to re-examine its decision, as it does regularly for all species of wildlife in Canada.

But let’s hope not.

Let’s hope the humpback whale reclassification is a reflection of the good work we are doing, and the lessons we are learning.

And most of all, let’s remember to celebrate the good-news stories whenever we find them.

Andrea Ahrens, MSc RPBio, is a conservation biologist who has provided expertise to the Northern Gateway Pipeline project.

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