Volume 7, No. 1

Promoting Cooperation to Maintain and Enhance
Environmental Quality in the Gulf of Maine

Spring 2003
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New protections for Northern bottlenose whale

The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC), an independent committee of experts that determines the status of wild Canadian species suspected of being at risk, has uplisted the Scotian Shelf population of the Northern bottlenose whale (Hyperoodon ampullatus) to endangered. The estimated population of these whales, which are mainly in “the Gully” off the Atlantic coast of Nova Scotia, totals about 130 individuals.

Northern bottlenose whales are known as one of the friendliest species of whales, often coming up to boats that sail into their habitat. This friendliness made them an easy target for whalers, who actively hunted the species until the mid 1960s. The whale, part of a family called beaked whales, is one of the deepest divers of all mammals, regularly plunging to depths below 1,000 meters [3,300 feet]. They usually remain well out to sea.

COSEWIC says the whale is threatened by oil and gas exploration and development in and around its prime habitat near Sable Island. Beaked whales elsewhere have perished because of loud underwater noises associated with undersea exploration and military exercises.

The whale’s change in status coincided with Canada’s passage of the Species at Risk Act (SARA), December 12. The nine-year struggle to get the act through Parliament was marked with many setbacks, industry and landowner resistance and efforts to water down protections that most biologists believed were long overdue. Also, without the adoption of its own endangered species laws, Canada was under no obligation to protect U.S. listed endangered or threatened species once they migrated across the border into Canada.

SARA establishes COSEWIC as a legal entity, which will give the committee more clout in getting designations through, says Dr. Hal Whitehead, a Dalhousie University biology professor and the co-chair of COSEWIC’s marine mammal specialist sub-committee. The committee’s recommendations will now go directly to the Minister of the Environment, the Minister of Canadian Heritage or the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans.

The legislation also requires the development of recovery strategies for species designated as endangered or threatened. Within that framework are “all aspects impacting a species and the community, such as critical habitat, the socio-economic impacts on affected communities and incidental harm issues,” says Jerry Conway, species at risk coordinator for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.