Column: A silver lining in the humpback whale of a tale

With diligent research, a lot of things have gone right for the humpback whale; we should be celebrating that it is no longer endangered.

Was the Earth Day announcement in Ottawa about big whale or big oil?

Last Tuesday, the federal Minister of Environment, on the advice of the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans, announced the decision to change the conservation status of the humpback whale from “threatened” under the Species at Risk Act (SARA) to a “species of special concern.”

Predictably, there was an eco-clamour. Downgrading the whale’s status came at a politically inflammable time when the feds are positioning themselves to approve (or deny?) the Northern Gateway Pipeline. There’s no special prize figuring out which way that will go. Needless to say, many connected some strategic dots.

But re-classifying the humpback whale as a species to be managed with special concern may be the right move and cause for celebration.

The fact is that the humpback has been making a come-back for quite a while. The updated 2008 IUCN Red List, the globally recognized benchmark for the conservation status of the world’s threatened wildlife, stated that some large whale species, including the humpback, are recovering in numbers.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) moved the humpback whale from “vulnerable” to “least concern” six years ago, putting it at low risk for the threat of extinction. Two subpopulations, one in the Arabian Sea and the other in the Southern Hemisphere, remain classified as “endangered.”

According to the IUCN, the global population of humpbacks is approximately 80,000. That is broken down to 18,000-20,000 in the North Pacific, 50,000 in the Southern Hemisphere, and some 12,000 in the North Atlantic. Before hunting was banned, there were barely 1,500 humpbacks in the North Pacific. Today’s numbers are a clear indicator of how successful conservation measures can be when they are rigidly kept.

“Humpbacks and southern right whales are making a comeback in much of their range mainly because they have been protected from commercial hunting,” said Randall Reeves, Chair of the Cetacean Specialist Group of the IUCN Species Survival Commission who led the IUCN Red List assessment. “This is a great conservation success and clearly shows what needs to be done to ensure these ocean giants survive.”

What doesn’t need to be done is jump too quickly. The conservation strategy of protecting the whales from commercial hunting has yielded spectacular results. But monitoring those special concerns will mean monitoring 21st century threats surfacing on a variety of fronts. Marine researchers and biologists with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans as well as Environment Canada shouldn’t let their guard down.

There is the potential for collisions with ships, toxic oil spills, fishing gear entanglement. and noise pollution (military sonar, seismic surveys and shipping). In addition, climate change is playing its hand as ocean temperatures rise affecting species’ distribution, inter-species competition, loss of food such as the krill that baleen whales like the humpback depend on, deteriorating habitat, and exposure to new diseases.

There is of course the looming issue of a spike in oil tanker activity out of Kitimat in a region where whales feed and rear their young in spring and summer. No one missed the cue that downgrading the status of the humpback whale would remove a major legal hurdle the Harper government has been facing before signing off on the Northern Gateway Pipeline this June. As a threatened species, the humpback’s critical habitat would have needed to be designated. With its status now downgraded, that designation has been removed.

With diligent research, a lot of things have gone right for the humpback whale. Really, we should be celebrating that it is no longer endangered. It is a treasured icon species whose song will draw millions of tourists to our shores for years to come.