Healthy Oceans. Healthy Communities.

Federal Cabinet’s pipeline approvals will leave whales unprotected

January 29, 2014

Living Oceans today released a report that examines the major threats to whale recovery posed by plans to increase in oil tanker traffic on Canada’s Pacific coast. Justified in the Circumstances: Whales or Supertankers? states that in order to protect whales as required by the Species at Risk Act, neither the Northern Gateway nor the Trans-Mountain pipeline and tanker projects can proceed. If both of the proposed projects to ship diluted bitumen are approved by the federal cabinet, the B.C. coast would see as many as 600-700 supertankers each year.

Justified in the Circumstances is highly critical of the federal government’s handling of whale habitat protection which appears to have been managed to delay a DFO whale recovery strategy from influencing the Joint Review Panel’s (JRP) environmental assessment of Northern Gateway.

“The panel’s recommendation was made without considering important evidence that highlights the threat Northern Gateway poses to whales on the B.C. coast,” said Karen Wristen, Living Oceans Executive Director. “The Northern Gateway tanker route would travel directly through critical humpback habitat identified in the government’s own recovery strategy. Tankers servicing Kinder Morgan’s TransMountain Expansion pipeline will run through the identified killer whales critical habitat.”

DFO’s humpback whale recovery strategy identifies the key factors limiting humpback survival and recovery are the danger of being struck and killed or displaced from feeding grounds by tanker traffic; and the danger of being poisoned by oil spills.  Justified in the Circumstances also assesses risks from the chemical dispersants that are proposed for use in spill response plans by both pipeline and tanker projects.

The federal government has designated critical recovery habitat for southern resident killer whales and humpbacks. Once critical habitat has been designated it is supposed to be protected from the major threats identified in the recovery plans for species at risk.

There are six species of whales living on the B.C. coast that are listed by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada under the Species at Risk Act. The blue, Sei, North Pacific right and southern resident killer whales are endangered. Humpback and fin whales are threatened, meaning that they are likely to become endangered if factors limiting their recovery are not reversed.

The Species at Risk Act requires the government to manage critical habitat of endangered and threatened whales so as to minimize the factors limiting their recovery. This law stands in stark opposition to the federal government’s stated intention to permit oil tankers to traverse critical habitats as ‘justified in the circumstances.’

“Before the current federal government changed the face of environmental law in Canada, environmental assessments would not allow a project to proceed if it had significant adverse effects that could not be mitigated,” Wristen said. “Now, the federal cabinet has the power to decide if a project’s harmful effects are “justified in the circumstances.”

On January 16 Living Oceans launched a lawsuit to block Cabinet’s expected approval of Northern Gateway because the JRP’s final report is based on insufficient evidence and does not satisfy the environmental assessment process.  Ecojustice represents us in this action, which we have brought together with Forest Ethics Advocacy and Raincoast Conservation Foundation.


Contact Information

Karen Wristen, Executive Director
Living Oceans Society
Cell: 604-788-5634


  • Map: tanker routes and whale critical habitiat.
  • Karen Wristen, Executive Director of Living Oceans.