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Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Humpbacks and humans deserve better

It just gets worse, the deeper you dig.

Bad enough that the government’s down-listing of humpback whales was accomplished just in time to make way for the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline. Now it appears that the ‘independent scientist’ retained to write the science advice for the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) was in fact the same person retained by Enbridge, and now Kinder Morgan, to provide evidence in support of their pipeline and tanker projects.

Just say you’re the government and you’re looking for a humpback whale expert to write an opinion about the state of their recovery for COSEWIC. Do you ask one of the 19 researchers who just last year completed and published a comprehensive investigation of the North Pacific humpback populations? Or do you ask Andrea Ahrens, a Stantec employee with a M.Sc., living in Gainsville, Florida, whose sole contribution to humpback literature is a paper, published in 2008, that analyzes humpback whale population numbers using photographs? And who happens to have been retained by both Enbridge and Kinder Morgan.

From Ms. Ahrens’ Linked In profile: “She serves as an advisor for the Canadian North Pacific Humpback Whale Recovery Team, co-authored the Draft Recovery Strategy, and wrote the COSEWIC Assessment and Status Report on the Humpback Whale in Canada.” You guessed correctly.
Vital feeding areas for Humpback Whales around Gill Island are designated as critical habitat. This area is also part of the proposed tanker route. Humpbacks are the species of whale most commonly reported to be struck by ships in B.C.

Odd that she didn’t mention her retainers when writing an opinion piece for the Vancouver Sun defending the humpback decision. Equally odd that Andrew Trites’ spirited but not especially scientific defence of the COSEWIC decision and his former student (“Let’s say every whale in the Douglas Channel is run over; you would probably never even notice it in terms of the recovery of whales on this coast.”) refers repeatedly to the independence of COSEWIC.

Trites and Ahrens may insist that there is no conflict in working for both the government that is supposed to protect whales and the companies whose ambitions will harm them. And perhaps there is none: the government has repeatedly signaled an overriding ambition of its own, to approve pipeline and tanker projects that will impact whale habitat. You would expect them to be a little more forthcoming about the author behind the downlisting recommendation, though, if it were truly so innocuous.

At Living Oceans we believe the public—and the whales—deserve better.


  1. This is a disappointing (I'm a fan of Living Oceans) and unfounded attack on scientists who are just trying to do their jobs - to provide accurate scientific information to the public (most importantly), to governments and yes, to corporations as well. While I do not personally agree with the Northern Gateway project, and would like nothing more than to see it disappear from our beautiful BC coast, legally industrial proponents must hire consulting scientists to provide environmental assessments. These scientists must provide objective and clear scientific advice - to suggest there is a conflict of interest here is to suggest that all consulting biologists allow their science to be swayed by those paying the bills. Biologists that are paid by the federal government to provide scientific advice frequently disagree with the government's environmental policies, but solid scientific advice is provided regardless, without allowing the current political powers to sway the results to be more "convenient" for policy makers. The decision to down-list a species in COSEWIC is made by a committee using set guidelines, it is not determined by a single person. Not to mention that Ms. Ahren's opinion piece in the Vancouver Sun was up front and said that she provides scientific advice to Northern Gateway (it's at the bottom of the page right after the article) - your claim that this information was left out is inaccurate.

  2. t Anonymous has missed the point. Firstly, the "scientist" hired is not much of a scientist, with not much in the way of credentials. Secondly, indeed yes, some scientists are willing to be bought off. (Just look to the pharmaceutical industry!) This does not in any way suggest that all consulting biologists will be swayed. Clearly, the Harper government looked far and wide for someone willing to say what they wanted. And they found someone with a MSc, and nearly no experience, and no concerns about conflicts. Hardly surprising.

  3. Wow, what an incredibly misguided article and attack on science. The work by COSEWIC is truly scientific and about as independent as can possibly occur in a world that is full of professional and academic complexity. It is not only disingenuous of Living Oceans to accuse these scientists of being in bed with any agenda, it is worse that the motivation is an agenda on the part of Living Oceans that is all about continuance of funding. Instead of celebrating the steady and sustainable return of a great mammal like the Humpback, they instead use it as a pawn in a twisted attempt to tie anything remotely related to human activity they don't agree with into an evil categorization.

    Shame on Living Oceans for being cowards and bullies. While conservation efforts, yours included, are to be applauded, the selective harassment of good science/scientists is not acceptable.

  4. The fact of the matter is that peer-reviewed science shows the population is nearly recovered. Your personal and libelous attacks on the credibility of Ms Ahrens are uncalled for and a stain on the reputation of your organization.... The studies showing they are abundant are published by other researchers who are notable advocates of humpback whales and opponents of the Gateway project, e.g. Erin Ashe et al. in PLOS ONE.

    I would suggest that you withdraw this article and apologize for these slanderous statements.

    Trevor Branch
    Assistant Professor, School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences

  5. If you consider that there's only one population of humpback whales in BC, COSEWIC was correct in down-listing. There is clear scientific disagreement on whether there are two populations of humpbacks in BC (one which winters in Mexican and one in Hawaiian waters). Many scientists would argue that they there are two distinct populations with different ranges and little exchange of genetics between the populations. If they were considered separate populations, the smaller Mexican population would easily fit the criteria for threatened or endangered. This situation would then be similar to killer whales in BC - with four distinct populations - and these individual populations remain on the endangered, threatened and special concern lists.

    Until more science is done on humpback whale populations in BC - genetic and populations studies - it is not clear that these humpback populations are recovered. COSEWIC has picked information that supports down-listing. Further, threats, such as the risk from entanglement are very poorly understood in British Columbia. There is no funded study of rates of scarring from entanglement in BC (an established method to understand what portion of a population becomes entangled) and little information is gathered from whales during disentanglement in BC (eye-witness reports of gear types that entangle whales are verifiably unreliable). No efforts have taken place or are underway in BC to prevent whales from becoming entangled by modifying the gear that entangles whales.

    With the down-listing of humpbacks, there will be much less chance that this work won't be completed; and our understanding of humpback populations in BC will remain incomplete.