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Recovery Strategy for Blue, Fin, and Sei Whales in Pacific Canadian Waters [Final]

Blue, Fin and Sei Whales

June 2006

Responsible Jurisdictions
Strategic Environmental Assessment Statement
Executive Summary


Blue Whale
Fin Whale
Sei Whale

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 SARAoutline 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 and the Web site of the Recovery Secretariat  (http://www.speciesatrisk.gc.ca/recovery/).

Recommended citation:

Gregr, E.J., J. Calambokidis, L. Convey, J.K.B. Ford, R.I. Perry, L. Spaven, M. Zacharias. 2006. Recovery Strategy for Blue, Fin, and Sei Whales (Balaenoptera musculus, B. physalus, and B. borealis) in Pacific Canadian Waters. In Species at Risk Act Recovery Strategy Series. Vancouver: Fisheries and Oceans Canada. vii + 53 pp.

Additional copies:

Additional copies can be downloaded from the SARA Public Registry.

Cover illustrations: A. Denbigh, courtesy Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

Également disponible en français sous le titre :

« Programme de rétablissement pour le rorqual bleu, le rorqual commun et le rorqual boréal (Balaenoptera musculus, B. physalus et B. borealis) dans les eaux canadiennes du Pacifique »

© Her Majesty the Queen in Right of Canada, represented by the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans, June 2006. All rights reserved.

ISBN 0-662-43570-2

Catalogue no. En3-4/1-2006E-PDF


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


This Recovery Strategy for blue, fin, and sei whales in Pacific Canadian waters has been prepared in cooperation with jurisdictions responsible for the species, as described in Appendix I. Fisheries and Oceans Canada has reviewed and accepts this document as its Recovery Strategy for these species as required by the Species at Risk Act (SARA).

Success in the recovery of these whales 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 & Oceans Canada or any other jurisdiction alone. In the spirit of the National Accord for the Protection of Species at Risk, the Minister of Fisheries & Oceans invites all Canadians to join Fisheries & Oceans Canada in supporting and implementing this strategy for the benefit of blue, fin, and sei whales and Canadian society as a whole. Fisheries & Oceans Canada will support implementation of this strategy to the extent possible, given available resources and its overall responsibility for species at risk conservation. The Minister 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 these species. The Minister will take steps to ensure that, to the extent possible, Canadians interested in or affected by these measures will be consulted.

Responsible Jurisdictions

The responsible jurisdiction for blue, fin and sei whales in Pacific Canadian waters is Fisheries and Oceans Canada. The Pacific populations of blue, fin and sei whales occur off the coast of the Province of British Columbia and the proposed National Marine Conservation Area off Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve. The Province of BC and Parks Canada also cooperated in the development of this recovery strategy.


This document was prepared by E.J. Gregr, J. Calambokidis, L. Convey, J.K.B. Ford, R.I. Perry, L. Spaven, and M. Zacharias on behalf of Fisheries and Oceans Canada.


Fisheries and Oceans Canada is grateful for the generous contributions of Lance Barrett-Lennard, Richard Sears, and Greg Silber, for contributing their time and expertise to reviewing the document. Thanks are also extended to J. Breiwick, J. Calambokidis, A. McMillan, B. Mate, R. Sears, D. Smith, G. Steiger, and D. Sandilands for their personal contributions. Fisheries and Oceans Canada is also grateful to the technical experts involved in drafting the Recovery Strategy, for their time in meetings and revisions of the document.

Strategic Environmental Assessment Statement

A strategic environmental assessment (SEA) is conducted on all SARA recovery planning documents, in accordance with the Cabinet Directive on the Environmental Assessment of Policy, Plan and Program Proposals. The purpose of a 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 habitats. The results of the SEA are incorporated directly in the strategy itself, but are summarized also below.

This Recovery Strategy will clearly benefit the environment by promoting the recovery of blue, fin and sei whales. 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: Biological needs, ecological role and limiting factors; Habitat needs; and Strategies to address threats and effect recovery.


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” [SARAS2(1)].

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

Executive Summary

Blue (Balaenoptera musculus), fin (B. physalus), and sei (B. borealis) whales are collectively referred to in this Recovery Strategy as balaenopterids (order Cetacea, family Balaenopteridae). The species are considered collectively because the similar geographic distribution and shared threats warrant the development of an integrated, multi-species recovery strategy.

As the first target of the modern (i.e., steamship) whaling industry, blue whale populations were severely reduced in all the world’s oceans during the early 1900s. Protected in the North Pacific in 1966, the Eastern North Pacific population currently numbers about 2000 animals and is one of the few blue whale populations known to be stable or recovering. The presumed summer range of this population extends from California to British Columbia and Alaska.

Fin whales were hunted concurrently with blue whales in the North Pacific. The largest catches were in the 1950s and 1960s, and resulted in significant population declines prior to their protection in 1976. The population structure in the eastern North Pacific is unclear. A putative California/Washington/Oregon population is comprised of over 3000 animals, and is believed to be distinct from the population in Alaska. Fin whales frequent Pacific Canadian waters year-round, with highest numbers seen in the summer months. However, it is not known to which population they belong.

Sei whales were hunted by modern whalers primarily after the preferred larger (or more easily taken) baleen whale species had been seriously depleted. Most populations of sei whales were reduced by whaling in the 1950s through the early 1970s. North Pacific sei whales were not protected from whaling until 1976. The sei whale is the least studied of the large whales, and the current status of most populations is not known. The existence of an Eastern North Pacific population is assumed, but its range is unknown.

Whaling remains the greatest potential threat to large whales. However, since commercial whaling is unlikely to resume in the near future and there is no aboriginal interest in hunting these species, whaling is not seen as a current threat. The escalation of scientific whaling would become a concern should it start to target blue, fin and/or sei whales. More imminent threats to these three species in Pacific Canadian waters include collisions with vessels, noise from industrial and military activities, pollution, and habitat displacement resulting from shifts in the physical and biological structure of the ocean.

Blue and sei whales are listed as endangered under the Species at Risk Act (SARA). Fin whales are designated as threatened by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC), and are under consideration for listing under the SARA. While the degree of information on the individual species is variable, recovery is believed to be feasible for all three species.

Balaenopterid whales are long-lived species with life spans between 50 and 100 years. Recovery goals must span several generations, and therefore have a horizon of 150-300 years. The goals of this Recovery Strategy are to attain long-term viable populations of the blue, fin, and sei whales that use Pacific Canadian waters. In order to determine whether progress is being made towards reaching these goals, the Recovery Strategy objectives over the next five to 10 years are: to determine the populations to which the blue and fin whales that occur in Pacific Canadian waters belong; to see that the relative proportion of blue and fin whales using these waters is maintained or increased; to confirm the presence of sei whales and, once confirmed, to see that the relative proportion of sei whales using these waters is maintained or increased; and to see that threats do not significantly reduce potential habitat or the species’ distribution.

Critical habitat for balaenopterid whales has not been identified, and represents one of the most significant knowledge gaps, along with basic information on the size and distribution of the populations. Threats to the species and their critical habitat can be better addressed once this basic information has been collected. Thus, the strategies outlined in this Recovery Strategy to address threats and effect recovery are: Critical Habitat Identification, Species Abundance and Distribution, and Threat Mitigation.

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