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A humpback whale breaks through the water of Hartley Bay along the Great Bear Rainforest in B.C. on Sept. 17, 2013.

Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press

Once hunted to the verge of extinction, the humpback whale has made such a remarkable comeback in the North Pacific that its status has been down-listed on Canada's infamous list of species at risk.

The change, made quietly over the Easter weekend when a notice was published in the Canada Gazette, removes one environmental hurdle for proposed pipeline projects in British Columbia, which would lead to an increase in oil tanker traffic on the West Coast. Critics say that is the real motivation for moving humpbacks from "threatened" to "special concern."

But Trevor Swerdfager, assistant deputy minister of ecosystems for Fisheries and Oceans, says the change is about only one thing – the amazing rebound of a species that whaling ships had almost wiped out by the mid-1900s.

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"The population of these animals is growing. It's growing at a rate that is … somewhat astonishing, but in a very, very good way and I think that is the story here," Mr. Swerdfager said in an interview Monday. "I know other people want to read various and sundry machinations into our work and that of others … but I'm [sounding] a note of cautious optimism [on the humpback population trend]. I think this is a good thing. I hope it continues and I'm fairly confident it will."

Humpbacks, one of the largest whales in the world, grow up to 16 metres in length and can weigh 40 tonnes. That large size, the rich blubber and the whale's habit of sometimes sleeping on the surface made it a popular target of whaling ships, until the commercial harvest was stopped in 1966.

From a low of about 1,400 humpbacks then, the Northern Pacific population has increased to an estimated 20,000 now.

Humpback whales migrate from as far away as Hawaii and Mexico to feed along the British Columbia coastline. Areas where whales concentrate include Douglas Channel, which lies on the tanker route to Kitimat where the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline would terminate, and around the southern tip of Vancouver Island, which will see increased tanker traffic if Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain expansion project goes ahead.

Mr. Swerdfager said the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada, which recommended that government down-list humpbacks, considered potential dangers in assessing the status of the species.

"Part of [COSEWIC's] work is to focus on threats to the species and determine … what risks those threats may pose to the species' long-term survival and viability. Certainly the science advice we got didn't indicate there were those broader, longer term concerns," he said.

Marty Leonard, a Dalhousie University professor who chairs COSEWIC, said the scientists who provided the advice to government were looking at population trends, not political concerns.

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"Our decision to go with special concern was because the population of whales has been steadily increasing," she said.

Dr. Leonard added COSEWIC opted not to down-list another step, to the "not at risk" category, because even with growing numbers it's not clear humpback whales are entirely safe.

"We kept it at special concern because the population is still not back to where it would have been before it was harvested [by commercial whaling], and also there are still threats, there are ship strikes and they get caught in nets," she said.

But Chris Genovali of Raincoast Conservation Foundation is suspicious of what motivated the change.

Mr. Genovali says the status down-list means the federal government no longer has to come up with a recovery strategy for the species – because it is no longer classified as "likely to become endangered if nothing is done" – and that means the government doesn't have to protect the critical whale habitat found on potential oil tanker routes.

"A change of status for these whales would place them in jeopardy of threats posed by Northern Gateway and the Trans Mountain expansion project," he said. "I think the move to down-list humpback whales [is] a sleight-of-hand approach, which the government has used before to remove environmental obstacles that they fear are interfering with their stated agenda, which is getting Northern Gateway moving forward."

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Ottawa no longer considers the North Pacific population of humpback whales a threatened species, which lifts many legal protections for the whales' habitat. The map below shows concentrated areas where humpback whales have been spotted off the west coast since 1984, and proposed oil tanker routes now under consideration. Full story here.

Sources: Fisheries and Oceans Canada, WWF Canada
Graphic by Matthew Bambach / The Globe and Mail

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