A tale of inaction – signifying nothing good for the orca

The news we received last week was troubling.  A young female southern resident orca was found dead in the Strait, the 4th death in a year for a population that now only numbers 77 individuals.

Today we found out that this orca was pregnant with a full-term fetus and the bad news is doubled.

Photo: Lance Barrett-Lennard
When a small endangered population of animals loses a young female, the long-term negative impacts are devastating. To learn that with her loss, we have also lost a new member of this population is even more disheartening.But this story is about more than just the incredible sadness of seeing a majestic animal in trouble but about what happens when our government ‘fiddles while Rome burns.’  If we care at all about this species and want to understand why it has such an uncertain future, we need to be clear on who the finger should be pointed at.Southern resident orcas were declared endangered under the federal Species at Risk Act in 2001.  Soon after, killer whales scientists were brought together to begin drafting a recovery strategy for the species using the best available science to identify key threats to the species.

The recovery strategy was due to be released in 2006, but it took another year and the threat of a lawsuit before it saw the light of day in 2007, with the orca’s critical habitat identified.  For a species to recover, the habitat critical to its survival must be identified and protected.

By 2009, we and our partners were back in court as the government was accused of failing to issue an order under its own Species at Risk Act to protect critical killer whale habitat.  They had a plan, but were delaying action.

The lawsuit pushed the government to issue the order, but the foot dragging continued and by 2010 we were back in court, this time with the government being accused of failing to legally protect all aspects of critical habitat for southern and northern resident killer whales.

Are you seeing the pattern yet?

By the end of 2010, the federal court ruled decisively in our favour, but by then 4 years had passed as we fought our government to enact their own laws, as tax payers money was wasted when it could have been spent acting to make the Strait healthier for the orca.

In 2011, we fought the government again as it attempted to reverse some aspects of the previous ruling and in 2012 we won again.

And then we waited.

Once threats to a species are identified in the recovery strategy, an action plan for mitigating and addressing these threats must be created.  It took until early 2014 for the draft action plan to be released (a year late), a plan which one again revealed how little commitment the government has to making change for the orca as its pages were filled with more research and inaction – and very little good news for the orca.

So here we are.

Photo: Lance Barrett-Lennard
Southern resident orcas are an important indicator of the health of the Strait.  Their struggles show how threatened this body of water is and how little that matters to those with the power to do something about it.  And it’s about more than that.  If our government is so disinterested in protecting an iconic and well-loved species such as the orca, what does that mean for the 118 other at risks species in the Salish Sea?  It means we have a serious problem.As frustrated as I am by the federal government’s inaction, as always, I am heartened by the passion and love that those of us who live along these waters have for the Strait and the orcas that live here. We see the big picture – both environmentally and economically – and know what the orca’s fate really means.

It’s not too late, and our job is to increase the pressure – with all of you standing right by our side – and stop the foot-dragging by our government.  We will also work with the scientists, local governments, business and industry who understand what’s at risk if we continue to do nothing.  Lucky for us, that list is long.

As seems to be the way these days, our government has abandoned its job of being steward of the environment, so it’s up to us to take the reins.  And we will so that in the years to come the news will be happier for the orcas and all of us who call the Strait home.

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