Environmental groups sue Canadian government over endangered southern resident orcas

VANCOUVER, B.C. -- Six conservation groups have filed a lawsuit over what they claim is the Canadian government's failure to protect endangered southern resident orcas.

The lawsuit comes less than a month after J35, a mother orca, carried her dead calf for an unprecedented 17 days throughout Canadian and Washington waters. The mother orca, known as Tahlequah, made headlines around the world and drew widespread attention to the threats facing the genetically unique population of whales.

Lawyers for Ecojustice are calling on the Canadian Minister of Fisheries and Oceans and Minister of Environment and Climate Change to issue an emergency order to protect the dwindling population. According to the lawsuit, the Canadian ministers announced in May that southern residents face "imminent threats" to their survival and should now follow through with plans to protect them as outlined in the Species at Risk Act. 

“In her unprecedented 17 days of mourning ... Tahlequah showed us the devastating consequences of inaction on this issue. Her calf survived only half an hour, following three years of unsuccessful births in the population,” Ecojustice lawyer Dyna Tuytel said.

Southern Resident killer whales are a genetically, behaviorally, and culturally distinct population of killer whales that feed primarily on Chinook and chum salmon, another species on the decline. Noise pollution and heavy vessel traffic in the waters where the orcas live have also hindered the whales' ability to hunt for food.

There are only 75 southern residents orcas remaining, with no documented births since 2015. 

“Emergency orders are specifically designed for circumstances like this, when you have a species that needs more than delayed plans and half-measures to survive and recover,” Christianne Wilhelmson, the executive director of the Georgia Strait Alliance, said. “Securing an order is vital for the southern residents and their habitat, which is also home to an estimated 3,000 species of marine life.”

Without emergency intervention, conservationists believe southern residents have a high chance of becoming extinct because "they are isolated genetically and socially, their population size is small, and critical habitat in the Salish Sea, on which their survival depends, has been degraded."

The lawsuit was announced just days after J50, another high-profile southern resident orca, was spotted alive. J50 is sick and emaciated, and researchers and biologists working to save her feared she was dead.