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.

The importance of poop for conservation

Going through the sample freezers in the lab here at the University of Calgary made me think about the importance of poop for conservation – mainly because the freezers are stuffed full of feces from a variety of wild animals.

Anyone who has talked to a wildlife ecologist knows that we like to talk about poop – a lot! Many dinner parties have in fact been dominated by different poop collecting stories, to the horror of non-science friends. What is it with our fascination with animal droppings that lead them to being incorporated into so many studies? There are several reasons, one being the ease of collection and another the wealth of knowledge that can be obtained from poop.

Getting excited about moose poop.

Getting excited about moose poop.

When studying elusive free ranging wild animal populations, one of the biggest obstacles in data gathering is accessing your sample population. If, like in my case, you add a threatened species, remote locations, expensive transportation, freezing temperatures, transboundary issues and unpredictable weather conditions to the equation, things tend to get a bit complicated.

However, by following animal tracks and collecting fresh fecal samples we can gain access to a lot of information, without disturbing the animals. If we GPS tag these locations, and record the date of collection, we can couple environmental data with individual animal data.

Below are some examples of the awesome things you can learn from poop.

Who’s there? By looking at the colour, shape and size of droppings you can identify which species it belongs to. For instance, hyena dung is white due to the presence of high levels of calcium, a result of hyenas eating the bones of their prey, whilst lion dung is black due to the amount of blood they consume.

During my PhD I collected a lot of Svalbard reindeer dropping to count parasites.

During my PhD I studied the gastrointestinal nematodes of Svalbard reindeer – which meant collecting a lot of reindeer poop.

What’s for dinner? Droppings can tell us what animals have been eating. For example, to find out if the endangered African elephant and black rhinoceros compete for food, researchers at the Centre for African Conservation Ecology studied rhino and elephant poop in different seasons to see what they are eating, and if the diets are different when elephants and rhinos share the habitat compared to when rhinos are alone.

How many? By counting the number of droppings in a set area you can estimate population density. For example, a 10 year study that counted snowshoe hare pellets showed that pellet counts strongly correlated with hare density. The snowshoe hare is the primary food of lynx, and is critical for its survival. The lynx and snowshoe hare cycle are closely connected, where the lynx population rises and falls with the hare population.  Thus, by counting snowshoe hare pellets, researchers gain information needed by land management agencies for hare AND lynx conservation. 

How stressed? When animals are exposed to physiological or environmental stress, hormones are released and eventually excreted in feces. As part of my research I am measuring the level of stress hormones (glucocorticoids) in fecal samples from caribou and moose to determine if these correlate with other health indicators such as parasitism and body condition. We are hoping that stress hormones will eventually be useful as overall bio-markers of health.

How hungry? By analysing poop for different hormones we can gain insight into the nutritional state of the animal. For example, as part of a study investigating the impact of wolf predation and human activity on moose and caribou in the Alberta oil sands, Wasser and colleagues trained dogs to find caribou, moose and wolf scat. These samples were then analysed to measure the levels of thyroid hormone metabolite, which decreases under nutritional stress.

Eggs from the gastrointestinal nematode Marshallagia marshal found in Svalbard reindeer poop.

Eggs from the gastrointestinal nematode Marshallagia marshalli found in Svalbard reindeer poop.

Which parasites? Poop can be used to identify and monitor many different parasites. For helminths (parasitic worms), this is often done by counting the number of eggs in the feces.

Who’s who? Fecal samples can also be used for genetic studies and to help us identify the species, sex and individual identity of animals. One of my collaborators, PhD student Jean Polfus, is currently conducting a genetic study on woodland caribou in the Sahtu to determine how closely they are related to each other. She does this by collecting poop samples and analysing the mucosal layer surrounding the sample.

Not the whole poop scoop

Poop is not only a gold mine for information but also plays important roles in ecosystems. Whale poop, for example, is important for primary productivity in the oceans due to its high content of nitrogen and iron. This means that more whale poop leads to more plankton, which leads to more fish.

I could go on, but I think I’ve already illustrated that there is more to poop than meets the eye – it’s not just a pile of shit!

On my first Liber Ero retreat to the Great Bear rainforest I spotted my first ever wolf scat, and of course I took a picture!

On my first Liber Ero retreat to the Great Bear rainforest I spotted my first ever wolf scat, and of course I took a picture!