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Whale watch warning

Whale watchers take in the breaching of a humpback in the Salish Sea during one of the tours run out of Cowichan Bay by Ocean Ecoventures. - courtesy Simon Pidcock
Whale watchers take in the breaching of a humpback in the Salish Sea during one of the tours run out of Cowichan Bay by Ocean Ecoventures.
— image credit: courtesy Simon Pidcock

Whales swim in the centre of Cowichanian Simon Pidcock’s tourism business.

So when asked if Ottawa should return North Pacific humpbacks to Canada’s endangered list — after being dropped last week to the lesser species-of-concern ranking — the Ocean Ecoventures’ owner didn’t hesitate in answering “100%.”

Pidcock’s blunt response was backed by his reporting humpbacks have returned to Cowichan waters, and south-island seas, after being wiped out in the past century.

“From the 1970s to 1995 we saw very few, then we saw our first humpbacks coming back.

“Last year, we were up to 70 humpbacks in the southern Salish Sea, from Nanaimo to the Sooke area,” said the valley-raised captain who launched his Cowichan Bay whale-watching operation in 2003.

To Pidcock, protecting migratory humpbacks — and the whole West Coast ecosystem — from a catastrophic oil-tanker rupture off Enbridge’s proposed Northern Gateway pipeline port at Kitimat, was a no-brainer.

“(An oil release) would greatly affect me because the whales we view travel through there,” he said, citing humpbacks, and orcas. “Tourism losses up and down this coast would be huge.”

That’s why he was suspicious about why the pro-pipeline feds dropped humpbacks’ status.

“I find the timing very interesting, especially with Kitimat’s city council voting ‘No’ for the pipeline (last week),” Pidcock said, noting recent “muzzling” of federal scientists.

But Ottawa’s decision cites a significant rebound in humpback populations identified in a 2011 assessment by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada.

“Growth rates have increased, leading to an improved abundance of the species,” it says, noting COSEWIC agreed humpbacks can now be reclassified.

COSEWIC found humpback numbers have grown 4% a year since the early 1990s, and rose more than 50% during the past three generations, or about 65 years, to more than 18,000 adult whales.

“While the species’ situation has improved tremendously over the last five decades, current numbers are still considerably smaller than the number that must have been present off the west coast of Vancouver Island before 1905,” the decision says.

Residual threats also in part led COSEWIC to give humpbacks special-concern status because they are “a recovering wildlife species no longer considered to be threatened, but not yet clearly secure.” Commercial hunting of humpbacks ended in 1966.

“In May 2012 we had two humpbacks living between Cow Bay and Crofton. There used to be a small population in the Saanich Inlet in the 1860s, then they were hunted to extinction,” added Pidcock.

He acknowledged the good news about humpbacks’ bounce-back — but backed environmentalists’ views that sinking the cetaceans’ status was one less Harper-government hoop toward making the pipeline and huge tankers a reality.

“The federal government is excusing itself from any legal obligation to protect humpback whale habitat, which conveniently makes it easier to approve the Enbridge pipeline and oil tanker proposal,” said Sierra Club campaigns director, Caitlyn Vernon.

"Continued recovery of humpback whales is completely incompatible with a massive increase in oil tanker traffic on B.C.'s coast, which is what they will face if the Enbridge and Kinder Morgan pipeline, and tanker proposals, proceed."

Pidcock signalled a tanker wreck in whale territory would be tragically inevitable.

"It's a given; boats run aground," he said, citing rocks, islands, extreme weather, and narrow channels faced by tanker crews.

Whales are seen by watchdogs as vulnerable to vessel strikes and underwater noise, plus entanglement in fishing gear.

"We need to take into account all aspects, and look at tourism and these animals," said Pidcock.

"It's (risk) huge; it's the whole ecosystem, and would affect all keystone species all the way up the food chain."

— with a file from Jeff Nagel

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