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Recovery strategy for the blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus), Northwest Atlantic population, in Canada

Species at Risk Act recovery strategy series, recovery strategy for the blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus), Northwest Atlantic population, in Canada.

Species at Risk Act
Recovery strategy series

Blue whale, Northwest Atlantic population

December 2009

About the Species at Risk Act Recovery Strategy Series

What is the Species at Risk Act (SARA)?

SARA is the Act developed by the federal government as a key contribution to the common national effort to protect and conserve species at risk in Canada. SARA came into force in 2003 and one of its purposes is “to provide for the recovery of wildlife species that are extirpated, endangered or threatened as a result of human activity.”

What is recovery?

In the context of species at risk conservation, recovery is the process by which the decline of an endangered, threatened, or extirpated species is arrested or reversed and threats are removed or reduced to improve the likelihood of the species’ persistence in the wild. A species will be considered recovered when its long-term persistence in the wild has been secured.

What is a recovery strategy?

A recovery strategy is a planning document that identifies what needs to be done to arrest or reverse the decline of a species. It sets goals and objectives and identifies the main areas of activities to be undertaken. Detailed planning is done at the action plan stage.

Recovery strategy development is a commitment of all provinces and territories and of three federal agencies -- Environment Canada, Parks Canada Agency, and Fisheries and Oceans Canada -- under the Accord for the Protection of Species at Risk. Sections 37–46 of SARA outline both the required content and the process for developing recovery strategies published in this series.

Depending on the status of the species and when it was assessed, a recovery strategy has to be developed within one to two years after the species is added to the List of Wildlife Species at Risk. Three to four years is allowed for those species that were automatically listed when SARA came into force.

What’s next?

In most cases, one or more action plans will be developed to define and guide implementation of the recovery strategy. Nevertheless, directions set in the recovery strategy are sufficient to begin involving communities, land users, and conservationists in recovery implementation. Cost-effective measures to prevent the reduction or loss of the species should not be postponed for lack of full scientific certainty.

The series

This series presents the recovery strategies prepared or adopted by the federal government under SARA. New documents will be added regularly as species get listed and as strategies are updated.

To learn more

To learn more about the Species at Risk Act and recovery initiatives, please consult the SARA Public Registry.

Recovery Strategy for the blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus), Northwest Atlantic population, in Canada

December 2009

Blue whale.
Photography: Véronique Lesage, Fisheries and Oceans Canada

Recommended citation:

Beauchamp, J., Bouchard, H., de Margerie, P., Otis, N., Savaria, J.-Y., 2009. Recovery Strategy for the blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus), Northwest Atlantic population, in Canada [final]. Species at Risk Act Recovery Strategy Series. Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Ottawa. 62 pp.

Additional copies:

Additional copies can be downloaded from the SARA Public Registry.

Cover illustration:

Véronique Lesage, Fisheries and Oceans Canada

Également disponible en français sous le titre
« Programme de rétablissement du rorqual bleu (Balaenoptera musculus), population de l’Atlantique Nord-Ouest au Canada [version finale] »

© Her Majesty the Queen in Right of Canada, represented by the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans, 2009. All rights reserved.
ISBN 978-0-662-08794-6
Catalogue no. En3-4/59-2008F-PDF

Content (excluding the illustrations) may be used without permission, with appropriate credit to the source.


The blue whale, northwest Atlantic population, is a marine mammal and is under the responsibility of the federal government. The Minister of Fisheries and Oceans is a “competent minister” for aquatic species under the Species at Risk Act (SARA). Since blue whales are regularly found in the Saguenay–St. Lawrence Marine Park and rarely in Forillon National Park administered by the Parks Canada Agency (Parks Canada), the Minister of the Environment is also a “competent minister” under SARA. SARA (Section 37) requires the competent ministers to prepare recovery strategies for listed extirpated, endangered and threatened species. The northwest Atlantic population of blue whale was listed as endangered under SARA in January 2005. The development of this recovery strategy was led by Fisheries and Oceans Canada – Quebec Region, in cooperation and consultation with many individuals, aboriginal communities, organizations and government agencies. The strategy meets SARA requirements in terms of content and process (Sections 39-41).

Success in the recovery of this population depends on the commitment and cooperation of many different constituencies that will be involved in implementing the directions set out in this strategy and will not be achieved by Fisheries and Oceans Canada and Parks Canada or any other party alone. This strategy provides advice to jurisdictions and organizations that may be involved or wish to become involved in the recovery of the species. In the spirit of the national Accord for the Protection of Species at Risk, the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans and the Minister of the Environment invite all responsible jurisdictions and Canadians to join Fisheries and Oceans Canada and Parks Canada in supporting and implementing this strategy for the benefit of the Northwest Atlantic blue whale and Canadian society as a whole. Fisheries and Oceans Canada and Parks Canada will support implementation of this strategy to the extent possible, given available resources and their overall responsibility for species at risk conservation.

The goals, objectives and recovery approaches identified in the strategy are based on the best existing knowledge and are subject to modifications resulting from new information. The competent ministers will report on progress within five years.

This strategy will be complemented by one or more action plans that will provide details on specific recovery measures to be taken to support conservation of the species. The competent ministers will take steps to ensure that, to the extent possible, Canadians interested in or affected by these measures will be consulted.

In November 2002, a workshop on blue whale research priorities was held in order to: 1) summarize the existing research programs in Canada, the United States and Iceland; 2) identify knowledge gaps; 3) establish priorities for future research activities. This summary of species information, knowledge gaps and research activities was a significant step to be taken prior to developing and implementing a recovery strategy for the blue whale (Lesage and Hammill, 2003).

Next, a blue whale (Northwest Atlantic population) recovery team was established. This team is composed of a dozen members from various departments and organizations (see Section 4, Recovery Team Members): Fisheries and Oceans Canada (Quebec, Newfoundland and Labrador, and Maritimes Regions), St. Lawrence Economic Development Council (SODES), Parks Canada (i.e., the Saguenay–St. Lawrence Marine Park (SSLMP)), the Innu Community of Essipit, the Group for research and education on marine mammals (GREMM) and the Mingan Island Cetacean Study (MICS). At the first meeting, held in February 2004, the recovery team drew on the latest knowledge to develop a priority list of current threats to the blue whale population and its habitat. Current knowledge is rather limited and based mainly on summer observations of blue whales in the Estuary and Gulf of St. Lawrence area, a small part of the distribution area of this species. During this first meeting, the recovery team also finished its identification of research needs, which began at the 2002 workshop. The second meeting, in December 2004, established the recovery goals and objectives. The recovery team also began to prepare a list of overall approaches and specific measures to address the threats. This list was completed during a third meeting held in March 2005. Together, these three meetings facilitated the collection and assessment of the information necessary to develop the current recovery strategy, which will be in effect from 2009 to 2014.

Competent Ministers

Under the Species at Risk Act, the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) is the competent Minister for the blue whale, northwest Atlantic population. The Minister of the Environment as the responsible Minister for the Parks Canada Agency is the competent Minister for the individuals located within the Saguenay–St. Lawrence Marine Park and Forillon National Park.


This document was written by Jacinthe Beauchamp, Hugues Bouchard, Paule de Margerie, Nancy Otis and Jean-Yves Savaria on behalf of the Blue Whale Recovery Team, Northwest Atlantic population.


Fisheries and Oceans Canada would like to thank the recovery team members for their contributions to the recovery of the Northwest Atlantic population of blue whales. Thanks to Andréanne Demers of DFO for her comments and editing of this recovery strategy. We would also like to thank the governments of Quebec and Newfoundland and Labrador for their comments on the preliminary version of this recovery strategy.

Strategic environmental assessment

In accordance with the Cabinet Directive on the Environmental Assessment of Policy, Plan and Program Proposals, the purpose of a Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) is to incorporate environmental considerations into the development of public policies, plans, and program proposals to support environmentally-sound decision making.

Recovery planning is intended to benefit species at risk and biodiversity in general. However, it is recognized that strategies may also inadvertently lead to environmental effects beyond the intended benefits. The planning process based on national guidelines directly incorporates consideration of all environmental effects, with a particular focus on possible impacts on non-target species or habitat.

This recovery strategy will clearly benefit the environment by promoting the recovery of the blue whale. The potential for the strategy to inadvertently lead to adverse effects on other species was considered. The SEA concluded that this strategy will clearly benefit the environment and will not entail any significant adverse effects. Refer to the following sections of the document in particular: Habitat and biological needs in Canadian Atlantic, Ecological role and Anthropogenic value, Intrinsic limiting factors, and Effects on other species.


SARA defines residence as: “a dwelling-place, such as a den, nest or other similar area or place, that is occupied or habitually occupied by one or more individuals during all or part of their life cycles, including breeding, rearing, staging, wintering, feeding or hibernating” [SARA, s. 2(1)].

Residence descriptions, or the rationale for why the residence concept does not apply to a given species, are posted on the SARA public registry.

Executive summary

The blue whale population (Balaenoptera musculus) in the Northwest AtlanticFootnote 1 was designated as endangered by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) in May 2002. This species was added to the Species at Risk Act list as an endangered species in January 2005. Commercial whale hunting historically carried out in the Atlantic reduced the population by about 70%; at least 11 000 blue whales were killed before the 1960s including at least 1 500 animals in eastern Canada waters. Currently, the size of the Northwest Atlantic population is unknown, but it is unlikely that the number of mature animals exceeds 250 individuals according to experts’ estimates. According to available information, blue whales use Atlantic coastal and pelagic Canadian waters mainly in the summer, to feed primarily on euphausiids, commonly known as krill.

In addition to historic hunting and natural sources of mortality such as ice entrapments and predation, a total of nine threats to the recovery of the Northwest Atlantic blue whale population are listed in this recovery strategy. Because of this population’s small size, activities affecting even a small number of individuals can have a significant impact on the species’ survival in the Atlantic. Among the threats described, two could represent a high risk for the blue whale population due to their probability of occurrence or the severity of their effect: anthropogenic noise which causes a degraded underwater acoustic environment and alters behaviour, and food availability for the blue whale. Medium risk threats include persistent marine contaminants, collisions with ships and disturbance caused by whale-watching activities of tourists or scientists. Lower risk threats include physical damage caused by noise, accidental entanglements in fishing gear, epizooticsFootnote 2 and toxic algal blooms as well as toxic product spills.

The long-term goal of this recovery strategy is to reach a total of 1000 mature individuals for the Northwest Atlantic blue whale population. In aiming to reach this recovery goal, three five-year objectives were set for the Canadian blue whale range: 1) Define and undertake a long term assessment of the number of Northwest Atlantic blue whales, the structure and trends of the population, and determine their range as well as their critical habitat within Canadian waters; 2) implement control and monitoring measures for activities which could disrupt the recovery of the blue whale in its Canadian range; 3) increase knowledge concerning the principal threats to the recovery of the blue whale in Canadian waters, in order to determine their true impact and identify effective measures to mitigate the negative consequences for this population’s recovery. To achieve these objectives, several recovery measures are proposed under three broad strategies: research and monitoring, conservation, and public awareness and education.

As the distribution range of the Northwest Atlantic blue whale population extends outside Canadian territorial waters, reaching the goal of 1000 mature animals is related to the involvement and contribution to blue whale recovery of governments from bordering countries and international ocean management organizations.


Footnote 1

Blue whales in the North Atlantic make up two distinct groups, one in the east and one in the west of the Atlantic. The Canadian population that is part of the current recovery strategy is the Northwest Atlantic population.

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Footnote 2

A disease affecting an animal species or a group of species as a whole in a more or less extensive area. Epizootics are epidemics that affect animals.

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