Humpback whales are no longer ‘threatened’ – and it has nothing to do with pipelines

When it comes to the environment, few issues are more controversial than the conservation of whales. Overhunting drove many species to the brink of extinction, but a sustained global conservation effort has successfully brought some of these creatures back from the edge.

So when the announcement was made that humpback whales would no longer be protected as a ‘threatened’ species in Canada, the public was furious. To many, this represented proof positive that the federal government would do anything to promote the Northern Gateway pipeline – including meddling with the protection of humpback whales to get them out of the way of development.

Our government has a lot to answer for in the area of environmental management, but the outcry in this case is misguided. To understand why, we first need to understand how decisions are made about whether our country considers a given species to be threatened or endangered.

In Canada, species go through a two-step process that determines whether they receive special protection as a species at risk of extinction. In the first step, an independent group of scientists called the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) reviews scientific information about the health of each species. They look at many factors, including how many individuals there are, whether the species is stable or in decline, and whether the threats that caused them to decline have been removed. One factor they do not consider is the cost of protection – that comes later.

Once COSEWIC makes their assessment, their report is passed on to the federal government. In this second step, the government examines the costs and benefits of protection, and determines whether they will commit to listing the species under the Species at Risk Act (SARA). If listed, the species receives the full protection of SARA, cannot be harmed or killed, and its critical habitat must be identified and protected. While the government is obligated to explain their decision if they elect not to list, these explanations have been criticized as being inconsistent, opaque, and biased by taxonomy (for example, marine fish rarely get listed for protection, particularly if protection costs money).

Under this system, politics is limited to influencing the second step. Neither the government nor the general public has any say on the assessments that COSEWIC renders. Therefore, if humpback whales were downlisted for political reasons, then their listing under SARA should be less severe than the assessment made by COSEWIC – for example, COSEWIC would have recommended a ‘threatened’ assessment, with the government listing as ‘special concern.’ If that happened, it would represent an example of the government ignoring scientific evidence.

For humpback whales, this was not the case. In 2011, COSEWIC re-assessed the North Pacific population, and determined that increases in whale abundance, an annual population growth rate of 4.9 to 6.8%, and the elimination of hunting have caused the species to recover to the point where it no longer qualifies for the special protections offered by SARA.

CBC headlines

At the time of writing, over 2000 comments – mostly opposed to the downlisting – have been posted on CBC’s article

When COSEWIC assessed the North Pacific humpback as being of ‘special concern,’ Fisheries and Oceans Canada held public consultations, at which point some scientists made the argument that the species should be considered as two separate units rather than one. COSEWIC rejected this opinion and maintained that the species should be considered as a single unit. There are many arguments for and against this decision, but it was scientifically reasonable to consider the whales as one unit.

There is no evidence that the down-listing of the North Pacific population of humpback whales was due to political gamesmanship – rather, it represents a conservation success story, albeit one that is not yet complete, and that Canada cannot take total credit for (that one goes to the sustained global fight against whaling). Now, humpback whales have been classified as ‘Least Concern’ by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, an internationally-recognized body that assesses the status of species around the world.

However, the recovery of humpback whales in BC is not an excuse to become complacent. The number of humpback whales in BC’s waters is still only about half of what it was one hundred years ago, so a lot of work has yet to be done to bring this species back up to historic levels. In addition, there are many examples of the government failing to meet its obligations for species listed under SARA, which have been summarized within a scathing report by the Auditor General of Canada.

Furthermore, if our laws require that species be at risk of extinction before effective management measures come into effect, then we need to revise our laws. Conservation focused strictly on endangered species would be like health care based entirely around the emergency room, ignoring something like vaccines as a cost-effective approach that can reduce disease at a fraction of the cost.

One important step would be restoring the protection of fish habitat under the Fisheries Act – protections that were recently reduced, in a move that was condemned by scientists and politicians across the political spectrum. Another would be to enforce conservation laws that are already on the books, including renewing the focus on identifying and protecting critical habitat, as is required by law.

However, in the case of the North Pacific population of humpback whales, we can draw satisfaction that here, at least, is an example of what we can do when we set our minds to protecting a species – and the reclassification of the species from ‘threatened’ to ‘special concern’ should be seen as a success story. Nevertheless, it is a story that’s not yet over.

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11 thoughts on “Humpback whales are no longer ‘threatened’ – and it has nothing to do with pipelines

  1. The basin wide population growth rate has been estimated at 4-6% using very questionable population data with no confidence limits. Hardly scientific. Further, growth rates of the BC population were 0 based on the only systematic and published population assessments carried out between from 2005-2008. Mean population estimates did change between surveys but confidence limits overlapped. In other words, some of the most important scientific claims used to support the delisting are very weak and not reliable. That said, anecdotally the impression is that humpbacks are recovering and increasing in BC waters.

  2. Thanks for the comment Paul. The details of the COSEWIC assessment, and the papers on which it is based, are all available on the SARA website: http://www.sararegistry.gc.ca/default.asp?lang=En&n=09707A81-1

    I’d be very interested to read a detailed rebuttal on the science of the status of humpback whales in BC – you and others from Raincoast have certainly raised interesting concerns. However, in my piece I chose to focus on educating the public about how decisions such as these are reached, and how to identify when something fishy is going on (for example, if the listing decision doesn’t match COSEWIC’s advice).

    Based on the information available, the government followed COSEWIC’s advice – so if there’s a problem with this decision, the problem is with COSEWIC’s assessment, not the federal government – which actually followed the scientific advice.

    The COSEWIC marine mammal subcommittee can be found here: http://www.cosewic.gc.ca/eng/sct6/sct6_4_e.cfm#3

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  4. My comments were not a criticism of the federal government, but did address the spurious claim that “solid science” supported the delisting, particularly that the BC population of humpback whales has been increasing since 2005. Most of us believe the BC population is increasing but the science to confirm that belief is lacking. Population estimates based on photo id are too broad to determine growth rates. At best, the “solid science” was fact by assertion.

  5. Very good article. My understanding is that COSEWIC members vote on the status of species under consideration. Voting members include representatives appointed by federal government departments who may not be recognised as top scientists, unlike other members of COSEWIC who are appointed based on their scientific knowledge. To my mind this could potentially weaken the claim that COSEWIC is entirely independent of politics.

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  7. By design, COSEWIC is not independent of government influence. Notably, most voting members, with the usual exception of Subcommittee chairs, are representatives of provincial federal, and territorial governments. Further, status reports that ultimately determine listings under SARA are vetted and modified by government employees, both inside and outside of COSEWIC. Not exactly and “arms length process”, unless you are an amputee.

    http://www.cosewic.gc.ca/eng/sct2/index_e.cfm

    “All status reports (including updated status reports and unsolicited reports) are treated in the same way. Each report must meet COSEWIC’s standards for quality and completeness, as outlined in the Instructions for Preparation of COSEWIC Status Reports. Status reports are subject to thorough reviews by the appropriate Species Specialist Subcommittee and the Aboriginal Traditional Knowledge Subcommittee, as well as by jurisdictions that have a responsibility for the wildlife species (including governments of the provinces and territories where the wildlife species occurs, federal departments responsible for the wildlife species, and Wildlife Management Boards). Additional outside experts may also be asked to review Status Reports. When the reviews are complete and revisions have been satisfactorily incorporated, the report is distributed to all COSEWIC members.

    At a COSEWIC wildlife species assessment meeting, COSEWIC members use status reports as a basis for discussion and for status assignment. Every 10 years, or earlier, if warranted, COSEWIC reassesses wildlife species previously designated in a category of risk with an update status report. As necessary, COSEWIC may also reassess other wildlife species previously found Not at Risk or Data deficient with an update status report.”

  8. Hi Paul, and others,

    I am increasingly uncomfortable with comments that effectively accuse COSEWIC members of scientific misconduct – that is, by changing their assessments based on politics. No matter who employs a scientist, it is serious indeed to suggest that they are not acting in good faith.

    Future posts should keep this in mind – this is a place to debate science, not the integrity of people on COSEWIC. I’m sure you have a lot of useful comments to make on the science of humpback whale populations and would be very eager to see that instead.

    Brett

  9. Bret, you have clearly missed the point of the posts. There were no accusations of scientific misconduct by individuals, as you incorrectly assert. My post effectively corrects ill informed claims, including yours, that COSEWIC is independent of government influence. Individual members of Species Specialist Groups within COSEWIC can certainly be independent, but the process determining a species status, and COSEWIC as a decision making body, are not. In your blog, you bolstered your scientific arguments, by appealing to the putatively independent authority of COSEWIC. However, the two central pillars of your blog, the efficacy of the science underlying the delisting and the independence of COSEWIC, have both crumbled under scrutiny.

  10. Paul, I could respond at length but instead, I’ll just succinctly say that this blog post was intended to elevate the discourse. If you want to bash members of COSEWIC (which is what you’re doing when you say they’re politically motivated) you’ll have to take that elsewhere, perhaps to your own blog. I’m happy to host comments on the science, policy, or process, but not comments on the people. That’s simply not what this blog is for. If you can produce evidence of bias then that’s another thing, but you’re just issuing veiled accusations that are so far unjustified. I’ve been nothing but respectful to you and I expect the same in return.

    Regards,

    Brett

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