In a deep fjord in British Columbia called the Douglas Channel, where the Kitimat River pours runs of Chinook salmon into the Pacific Ocean, fishermen see singing humpback whales fling themselves into the air.
These barnacled, 40-ton whales with long, ridged flippers were harpooned to the brink of extinction in the 1900s. Only through intense conservation efforts have they found safety in ancient migration routes. Mothers birth a single calf in tropical seas and fast for months as it nurses, before migrating thousands of miles up to the North Pacific. There, in enclaves like the Douglas Channel — a critical feeding ground — the whales nourish themselves on krill.
“They’re amazingly beautiful; they’ll knock your socks off,” says Tracey John Hittel, a fishing lodge owner in Kitimat, a town on the channel. Hittel takes guests to see the whales in a 30-foot fishing boat. “They’ll come so close you can see their eye right against yours,” he says.
Now the humpbacks are the flashpoint of an environmental battle. Environmentalists cried foul last month when the Canadian government stripped the whales of protections under its Species at Risk Act (SARA), Canada’s equivalent of the U.S. Endangered Species Act. Stephen Harper’s administration downgraded the status of humpbacks from “threatened” to “species of special concern.” To add to the problem, many fear that a massive pipeline, poised to pump a half-million barrels of crude oil a day into tanker ships in the Douglas Channel, is on the verge of being approved. The Northern Gateway Pipeline, similar to another pipeline roiling politics in the United States, the Keystone XL, would affect the whales’ feeding grounds. An announcement on Northern Gateway is expected in June from Prime Minister Harper.
“The Harper government is dismantling environmental protections in order to promote the extraction and transportation of the world’s dirtiest oil,” says Michael Byers, a political science professor at the University of British Columbia. “The downgrading of humpback whales is part of this.”
But the whale decision has made curious allies of Harper, a booster of pipelines and formerly an accountant for Imperial Oil in Alberta, and Canada’s top marine biologists.
Humpback numbers before industrial whaling proliferated in the 19th century are unknown, but in the 20th century alone, whalers killed some 200,000 of them. By 1966, scientists estimated there remained fewer than 5,000 animals. The same year, to save them from extinction, the International Whaling Commission banned commercial hunting. Canada joined the ban in 1972.
SARA, Canada’s endangered species law, mandates that for any species listed as “endangered” or “threatened,” the government must identify “critical habitat.” These habitats are breeding or feeding grounds so vital to a species’ survival that industrial activity, such as shipping, must be strictly regulated.
Last year, the Canadian government announced four areas of humpback critical habitat — including the mouth of the Douglas Channel, which is a crucial feeding ground for the whales.
Douglas Channel, a proposed terminus for an oil pipeline in the Enbridge Northern Gateway Project, in Kitimat, British Columbia.Darryl Dyck / Canadian Press / AP
This presented a problem for Enbridge Inc., Canada’s largest exporter of crude oil, which in 2005 had announced its intentions to build a 730-mile, $8 billion pipeline to the Pacific Ocean, culminating in the town of Kitimat on the Douglas Channel. The company plans to run 220 oil tankers per year to Kitimat.
“It was a roadblock,” says Linda Nowlan, a conservation director in British Columbia for the World Wildlife Fund. “The Enbridge Northern Gateway project was on a collision course with the law.”
Meanwhile, thanks to SARA, the humpback population in British Columbia has rebounded. Scientists have estimated that there are more than 2,000 humpbacks there, more than enough for their genetic diversity to protect them from catastrophe. The annual population growth rate is a healthy 4 percent, and scientists now think that there are between 18,000 and 22,000 whales in the Northern Pacific, the highest number in decades.
Despite a 2011 recommendation from the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) that humpbacks be downgraded from “threatened” to “species of special concern” — which meant the whales would lose the special habitat protection afforded by the law — the government didn’t act. It was only in April this year, six months after it became apparent that the designation of the Douglas Channel as a critical habitat for the humpback could preclude Enbridge’s pipeline plans, that the government acted on COSEWIC’s advice.