Orca near Vancouver., Tobin Sparling / CC-BY-NC
Orca near Vancouver. © Tobin Sparling / CC-BY-NC

What the State of Whales tells us about conservation in Canada


Contact

Daniel Kraus
Director of National Conservation

William Halliday
Conservation Scientist/Arctic Acoustics Program Lead

Stephen Insley
 Director of Arctic Conservation

Related

Whales and seals

Published

2024-04-04

Over half of Canada’s 40 whale species remain at some level of extinction risk.

Summary

  • WCS Canada has just published a new SHAPE of Nature report on the State of Canada’s Whales
  • Almost 20% of Canada's whale species have improved conservation status under Canada’s Species at Risk Act including Grey Whale - Northern Pacific Migratory population, Humpback Whale – North Pacific population and the Beluga Whale James Bay population.
  • 54% of Canada’s 40 whale species remain at some level of extinction risk.

There was a time when it was very easy to understand what was killing whales. Whaling was one of the first commercial activities in Canada beginning in the 1540s when the Basques from southern France and northern Spain established the Red Bay Whaling Station on the coast of Labrador. For over 400 years Bowhead Whales, Right Whales, and at least a dozen other species were chased, harpooned, and stripped of their blubber which was boiled down and sent to markets around the world.

By the early 1900s it was clear that whales were rapidly disappearing in Canada and around the world. In 1931, 27 countries, including Canada, signed the International Convention for the Regulation of Whales, one of the first international agreements to protect wildlife. The convention didn’t end whaling, but it set the stage for conservation efforts that eventually resulted in a moratorium of commercial whaling in Canada by 1986. While sustainable harvesting practices of whales for food by Indigenous peoples have been restored, hunting is no longer a threat to the survival of whales in Canada.

The recovery of many whale species has been steady but slow after the phase out of commercial hunting because of their low reproduction rate. For example, Bowhead Whales in Canada’s Arctic typically have one calf every 3 to 4 years after a gestation period of around 13 to 14 months. But many species have higher populations now than a generation ago. Our recent SHAPE (Species, Habitats, Actions & Policies Evaluations) of Nature on the State of Canada’s Whales identified that almost one in five species have improved in their official conservation status under Canada’s Species at Risk Act including Grey Whale - Northern Pacific Migratory population, Humpback Whale – North Pacific population and the Beluga Whale James Bay population.

Unfortunately, our report also shows that 54% of Canada’s 40 whale species remain at some level of extinction risk. This analysis includes dolphins and porpoises and distinct populations of whales.

What's threatening Canada's whales?

The main threats to Canadian whales vary among species. Today commercial hunting is no longer an issue but it’s the growing barrage of different threats that are facing our oceans.

Primary threats include:

  • marine vessel strikes,
  • entanglement in fishing gear,
  • habitat loss or degradation,
  • chemical and noise pollution,
  • natural resource exploration/extraction,
  • and loss of prey availability or quality.

These threats are all confounded by the effects of climate change which are complex and dynamic. Changing sea temperatures have amplified the primary threats for some whales, complicating conservation efforts, while some species appear to be experiencing temporary benefits.

In many ways the history of whale conservation reflects the increasing challenges facing wild species across the country. Our past efforts to solve key issues are being challenged by an increasingly complex web of threats. Species at risk continue to add up faster than species we have saved.

How can we help whale populations to recover?

Whale conservation and recovery is a complex issue that will require both a doubling down of existing efforts and discovering new solutions. As our oceans get busier, we need to implement vessel strike management measures such as enforcing marine vessels to avoid or slowdown in certain high-risk areas, develop protected areas with sufficient no-access buffer zones, or regulate corridors for vessel traffic to travel.

New Marine Protected Areas, Indigenous Protected Conserved Areas, and Key Biodiversity Areas can support conservation in critical migration and breeding sites.

At Wildlife Conservation Society Canada, we have been monitoring noise in the Arctic Ocean to identify impacts and solutions of increasing ship traffic, including modelling noise footprints of vessels, testing responses of whales to ship noise, and making recommendations on vessel paths and speeds. This, in addition to gathering a plethora of basic biological data on Arctic whales.

We’ve saved whales once, but this conservation story is far from over. We need to ensure the success and legacy of those past conservation efforts continues.

Whales and seals

Whales and seals

A warmer, noisier Arctic is creating new challenges for marine mammals

Key Biodiversity Areas

Key Biodiversity Areas

Canada's critical places for nature

SHAPE of Nature

SHAPE of Nature

An accessible and comprehensive clearinghouse that shares the status and trends of biodiversity conservation across Canada.