The few North Atlantic right whales left in the world visit the waters off Canada's East Coast every summer and fall. They're big animals, weighing up to 80 tonnes and measuring up to 18 metres. But even though the whales enjoy prolonged multi-partner mating and the males have the biggest cojones in the animal kingdom, they're slow breeders and haven't been able to increase their numbers much above 400 for some time.
Their name was bestowed on them by early whalers, who considered them the "right" whale to hunt because they are large, swim slowly and often close to shore, and usually float when they are killed. Although people haven't hunted them since 1935, we're still putting them in danger from collisions with ships or entanglement in fishing gear in the busy waters off the U.S. and Canada.
These factors have made this giant mammal one of the most endangered whales in Canada. But there has been some recent good news for the North Atlantic right whale. The federal government released its final recovery strategy for the whales in June, and it includes identification of the whale's critical habitat.
Critical habitat refers to areas necessary for a plant or animal species to survive or recover. Under Canada's Species at Risk Act, once an endangered species' critical habitat has been identified in a recovery strategy, the government must legally protect it if it falls within federal jurisdiction, as oceans do.
In the case of the right whale, the government has 180 days from the release of its strategy to protect habitat features necessary for recovery. This means ensuring the whales have a functioning ecosystem that supports their primary needs and that they are protected from collisions with ships and entanglements in fishing gear.
Fisheries and Oceans Canada's original proposed recovery strategy in January did not identify the Roseway Basin, an area 48 kilometres south of Nova Scotia, as critical habitat. But the David Suzuki Foundation, with advice from Ecojustice, argued that the Roseway Basin and Grand Manan Basin must be included. The revised recovery strategy reflected this advice by adding the Roseway Basin to the critical habitat identification.
It's great that the government has moved to protect the habitat of these magnificent mammals, but more needs to be done if our Species at Risk Act is to be effective. A report card issued in April by conservation groups including the David Suzuki Foundation showed that few of the 449 species listed under the act are receiving adequate protection, especially where there might be competing interests.
The Banff Springs snail, which lives in the already protected Banff National Park, is the only species to get an action plan in the act's six-year history. Meanwhile, numerous species like the boreal woodland caribou, northern spotted owl, and polar bear continue to disappear with no protection of their critical habitat under the act.
Habitat loss and degradation are the primary causes of decline for 84 per cent of Canada's species at risk. We can't expect a plant or animal to survive or recover if it doesn't have a healthy place to live.
Of course, governments often find it difficult to put the needs of plants and animals above competing human interests. Protecting critical habitat often means that industrial activities such as logging and mining must be halted or practices significantly improved in areas critical to species' survival. But we often fail to realize that the consequences — both ecological and economic — of losing species and the functioning ecosystems upon which they depend are more severe than the consequences of altering or halting industrial activity within that habitat.
When a species disappears, it affects entire ecosystems. The species may be important as a food source for other animals, or for maintaining the pH of the forest floor, or it may be a predator that keeps other species populations from expanding too rapidly. Functioning ecosystems are far more complex than we realize. Damaging ecosystems that bring us services such as carbon sequestration and storage, pollination, nutrient cycling, and water and air purification tampers with the composition of the natural systems that support wildlife and humans alike.
Some of Canada's at-risk species don't have a lot of time left. We must view the protection strategy for these whales as an example to follow for protecting other endangered species — for their sake and ours.