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

7 Actions Completed or Underway

7.1 International legal status and protection

Internationally, blue whales have been protected from whaling by the IWC since 1966 while North Pacific fin and sei whales have been protected by the IWC since 1976. All three species are listed as “Protected,” an IWC designation for stocks smaller than 40% of their maximum sustainable yield levels.

The three species are also listed as “Endangered” by the IUCN (World Conservation Union) based on whaling exploitation. The Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) lists blue, fin and sei whales under Appendix 1 (species threatened with extinction, in which international trade is prohibited).

In the U.S., blue, fin, and sei whales are listed as “Endangered” under the Endangered Species Conservation Act and are protected under the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act. NMFS and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service share responsibility for the administration of these Acts.

7.2 Canadian legal status and protection

In Canada, the Pacific populations of blue and sei whales were legally listed and protected as “Endangered” under the SARA in January 2005. The Pacific fin whale population was designated by COSEWIC as “Threatened” in May 2005, and listing under the SARA is anticipated. The SARA prohibits harm (killing, harassing, capture or take) to listed species, includes provisions to protect critical habitat, and requires the development of a recovery strategy for each listed species.

Marine Mammal Regulations pursuant to the federal Fisheries Act prohibit the taking or disturbance of marine mammals, unless specifically authorized under the authority of a harvest licence (i.e., commercial whaling), scientific licence, or aboriginal authority to hunt for food, social or ceremonial purposes. No licenses for the taking of cetaceans have been issued for Pacific Canadian waters since 1967. Any application for a Scientific Licence for invasive or disturbance-based sampling would require a rigorous assessment based on Section 73 of the SARA. There is no historic evidence of, or expressed current interest in, an aboriginal hunt for these species.

While the potential opportunities for ecotourism or whale watching by recreational boaters are limited for these species, whale watching guidelines have been developed as a general code of conduct to limit disturbance. Monitoring and enforcement of these guidelines, as they relate to the disturbance prohibition of the Marine Mammal Regulations, is conducted as required. Amendments to the Marine Mammal Regulations that would provide more explicit prohibitions aimed at preventing disturbance situations are under consideration.

7.3 Habitat protection (Canada)

There are currently no marine areas designated to specifically protect the habitat of blue, fin, or sei whales. However, the Pacific North Coast Integrated Management Area (PNCIMA) ocean planning initiative will incorporate mitigation strategies to address threats to species at risk and to protect critical habitat(s) on the North Coast of British Columbia from Brooks Peninsula on the west coast of Vancouver Island, and Campbell River on the east coast of Vancouver Island, north to the Alaska border, focusing on the Queen Charlotte Basin (Queen Charlotte Sound to Hecate Strait). The marine area extends to the bottom of the shelf slope and therefore includes a significant portion of on-shelf whale habitat in Pacific Canadian waters.

Under the Canada National Marine Conservation Areas Act, Parks Canada is responsible for the creation of National Marine Conservation Areas (NMCAs) which will be managed for sustainable use, and protected from industrial activities such as marine dumping, mining, and oil and gas exploration and development. A proposed NMCA in the southern Queen Charlotte Islands will extend 10 km offshore from Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve, and thus will include some nearshore habitat occasionally used by fin whales. Consultations on the proposed NMCA are on hold pending negotiations with the Council of the Haida Nation.

Environment Canada is currently assessing the marine area around the Scott Islands archipelago, an internationally recognized Important Bird Area as a possible candidate for designation as a Marine Wildlife Area (MWA) under the Canada Wildlife Act. Marine Wildlife areas can be established for the purposes of conservation, research and interpretation. The marine portion of this area may serve to protect a portion of nearshore fin whale habitat.

The Fisheries Act has provisions to protect marine mammal habitat. Marine Protected Areas may also be established under the Oceans Act. Once critical habitat is identified, approaches for its protection under the provisions of the SARA will be more easily determined. Further consultation may be warranted once specific measures required to protect critical habitat can be identified. Measures may also include recommendations from industries and efforts at an international level.

7.4 Research

In the U.S., NMFS finalized the recovery plan for blue whales in 1998 (Reeves et al.1998). The recovery plan for fin and sei whales remains in draft form, awaiting legal clearance (Waring et al. 2001). NMFS researchers undertake extensive dedicated surveys of the U.S. west coast and Bering Sea for marine mammals every year. Extensive marine mammal habitat studies are underway off California for species including blue whales, and acoustic detection has been used to study their distribution in the eastern North Pacific.

In Pacific Canada, marine mammal surveys conducted by CRP-DFO along primarily the north coast off British Columbia have resulted in two blue whale sightings in 2002, one in 2003, and none in 2004 (Figure 3). No sighted animals have been identified as sei whales, while individual and groups (3-10) of fin whales are often sighted. Given the difficulty in positively distinguishing between fin and sei whales at sea (the right mandible must be observed for positive identification), the lack of sei whale sightings cannot be considered definitive. Whenever possible, individual whales sighted during these surveys are photographed for identification and comparison with catalogues of whales sighted in U.S.waters.

CRP-DFO is also developing predictions of balaenopterid habitat (e.g., Figure 4) to focus survey effort and work towards identifying potential habitat, the initial step to the identification of critical habitat (Section 9.4.1). Acoustic monitoring efforts using submersible passive acoustic recording devices are also being undertaken. Opportunistic sightings collected by the BCCSN since 1972 will help to determine distribution as well as relative abundance of whales.