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  • Writer's pictureEmma Gillies

Canada's most endangered whales

Whales: they’re giant ecosystem engineers that recycle nutrients, store carbon, stabilize the ocean ecosystem, and contribute to the health of fisheries. But while whales are vastly important to the environment and humans, many populations are not doing so well. Of Canada’s 33 whale species, 19 populations are listed as endangered, threatened, or of special concern under the Species at Risk Act (SARA). Some of Canada’s most at risk whale populations are the North Atlantic right whale, the Southern Resident killer whale, and the St. Lawrence beluga whale.

North Atlantic right whale

Jolinne Surrette

The North Atlantic right whale powers its 70-tonne body with krill and small fish. While it normally inhabits of the Atlantic coast of the U.S. and Canada, adult females travel to the warmer waters of the southern U.S. to give birth and nurse their young. Historically known as the “right” whales to hunt, since they float once they are killed, they have been experiencing population decline since the mid-20th century. Scientists estimate that there are only 400 North Atlantic right whales left.

Aside from whaling, the greatest threats to North Atlantic right whales are entanglement in fishing buoy lines, which can lead to serious injury and death; ship strikes, especially since the waters in which they live are close to major Atlantic ports; and noise from recreation and the shipping and energy industries, which can affect whales’ mating, communication, and their ability to navigate and find food.

Conservation status in Canada: Listed as endangered under the Species at Risk Act (SARA) and endangered under the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC).

Conservation status in the US: Listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and designated as depleted under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA).

Conservation status internationally: Listed as Appendix 1 (at risk of extinction) under the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES) and as endangered under the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

Southern Resident killer whale

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Roughly the size of a school bus, the Southern Resident killer whale is an ecotype of killer whales, or orcas, off the coasts of British Columbia, Washington, and Oregon. While other killer whale populations specialize in eating other marine mammals and even small sharks, Southern Resident killer whales eat mainly Chinook salmon. Orcas locate their prey using echolocation and tend to have very complex social interactions, often compared to that of humans and elephants.

In the 1960s, hunting and capture resulted in the loss of more than half of the Southern Resident population, which currently stands at about 73 whales. Since 2015, only one birth has produced a calf that reached juvenile age. Threats to this population primarily stem from pollution, shipping, noise, and lastly, prey availability, as Chinook salmon stocks in the Pacific Northwest have been declining due to overfishing, habitat degradation, and water quality.

Conservation status in Canada: Listed as endangered under the SARA and as endangered under the COSEWIC.

Conservation status in the US: Listed as endangered under the ESA and as depleted under the MMPA.

Conservation status internationally: International laws do not look at the subpopulation, but rather the whole species. Killer whales are thus designated as Appendix II (not considered threatened, but their trade is regulated) under CITES and as data deficient under the IUCN.

St. Lawrence Estuary beluga whales

© Shutterstock‍

Primarily an Arctic species, the St. Lawrence Estuary beluga exists at the southernmost limit of its range, geographically isolated from other beluga populations. Belugas, like other toothed whales and dolphins, use echolocation to find their prey, which consists of various fish and invertebrates. They are known as sea canaries because of their high-pitched whistles.

From the late 19th century to today, the St. Lawrence Estuary beluga population size has decreased from as many as 10,000 to roughly 900. Since the International Whaling Commission’s ban on commercial whaling in 1986 there has been no real recovery in the population, likely due to pollution, reduced food resources, habitat degradation, ship strikes, and entanglement in fishing gear.

Conservation status in Canada: Listed as endangered under the SARA and as endangered under the COSEWIC.

Conservation status in the US: While other populations of beluga whales inhabit waters off of Alaska, St. Lawrence belugas are only found in Canadian waters.

Conservation status internationally: The subpopulations of beluga whales are not specified when it comes to international conservation status. Beluga whales as a species are designated as least concern under the IUCN and as designated as Appendix II under CITES.

National Geographic Creative/Alamy Stock Photo

While the North Atlantic right whale, Southern Resident killer whale, and St. Lawrence Estuary beluga whale belong to different species and geographic regions, they are susceptible to a common threat: humans. Entanglement in fishing gear, ship strikes, habitat degradation from coastal development, noise and chemical pollution, climate change, changes in prey availability, and small population sizes—made even smaller by humans—all threaten the survival of these whales.

Whale Seeker is committed to helping clients research species such as these, as well as various other whale species in Canadian and global waters. Together with citizens, scientists, and industry, we aim to create solutions that enable our clients to better understand, locate, and conserve whale populations by preventing ship strikes and human-whale conflict.


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