Consultations on the Grey Whale, Pacific Coast Feeding Group and Western Pacific Populations

Current status: Closed

This consultation ran from October 3, 2022 to December 2, 2022.

Canada’s Species at Risk Act (SARA) provides legal protection for wildlife species at risk to conserve biological diversity. It also acknowledges that everyone in Canada has a role to play in the conservation of wildlife species.

Before deciding whether Grey Whale (Eschrichtius robustus, Pacific Coast feeding group and/or Western Pacific populations) will be added to the List of Wildlife Species at Risk as endangered, the Government of Canada wants to hear your opinion, comments, and suggestions regarding the possible ecological, cultural, spiritual, and economic impacts of listing or not listing either of these populations under SARA.

Key questions for discussion

Amending the List of Wildlife Species at Risk

The process of adding or removing a species under SARA consists of several steps. It begins with a status assessment by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) and ends with a Government of Canada decision on whether or not to amend the List of Wildlife Species at Risk. Public consultations are an important step in this process.

Who assigned the population structure and status?

COSEWIC is a committee of experts that assesses if a wildlife species is in some danger of disappearing from Canada. It assigns both the population structure and status to species. COSEWIC conducts its assessments based on the best available information including scientific data, local ecological knowledge, and Indigenous traditional knowledge.

COSEWIC initially assessed Grey Whale as a single population, known as the Eastern North Pacific population, and classified it as special concern in 2005. It was listed as such in 2011. When COSEWIC re-assessed Grey Whale in 2017, it split the Eastern North Pacific population into two distinct populations: the  Northern Pacific migratory population (~21,000 individuals, assessed as not at risk) and the Pacific Coast feeding group population (~250 individuals, assessed as endangered). Unlike the Northern Pacific migratory population, the Pacific Coast feeding group does not migrate to  feeding grounds in the North Pacific,  instead spending the summer and autumn feeding in temperate coastal waters, including those off British Columbia. 

COSEWIC also assessed a third population, the Western Pacific (~300 individuals) as endangered. This population transits Canadian waters as part of its migration route. These assessments require the Government to undertake a process to determine whether or not to list either or both endangered populations under SARA. Under SARA, an endangered species is defined as one that is facing imminent extirpation or extinction.

Grey whale
Grey Whale (Credit: A. Denbeigh, courtesy of Fisheries and Oceans Canada)

Grey Whale facts

Grey Whales are baleen whales that use their baleen (long, thin plates of keratin that hang from their upper jaws in place of teeth) to filter sediment out and trap prey such as small invertebrates. Grey Whales lack a dorsal fin and are often covered in patches of barnacles and whale lice. They generally form small groups of one to three individuals, but migrating whales can be found in groups of up to 20 individuals. Historically, Grey Whales in the eastern north Pacific were harvested, both for subsistence use and by commercial operations. Grey Whales are culturally and spiritually important to many Indigenous communities.

Grey Whales primarily use coastal habitats throughout the year for breeding, calving, migrating, and foraging. Most Grey Whales spend the winter and breed in warm temperate waters off Mexico and then migrate to cold waters in the North Pacific where they feed through the summer and autumn. Some Western Pacific individuals transit Canadian waters during their migration to and from feeding grounds in coastal waters off Russia. The Pacific Coast feeding group feeds in the waters between Alaska and northern California in the Pacific Northwest, often going to the same feeding sites every year.

Grey whale
Grey Whale (Credit: Christie McMillan)

Why are they at risk?

While Grey Whales in the Pacific were severely depleted by commercial whaling in the last century, numbers have increased and remained well above what they were in the middle of the 20th century. However, they remain vulnerable to several key threats and unpredictable events due to the small size of the populations assessed as endangered. Current threats to Grey Whales in Canada include entanglement in fishing gear, ship strikes, disruption or destruction of feeding habitat, physical disturbance, acute and chronic noise, pollutants, and disturbance resulting from some scientific research activities. Potential threats include toxic spills and future food, social, or ceremonial harvest if Indigenous groups that traditionally harvested Grey Whales renew their interest in this activity. Since 2019, a large number of Grey Whales have stranded along the west coast of North America; this event has been declared an unusual mortality event. There have been approximately 500 deaths recorded to date, the causes of which are currently under investigation.

What effect does a listing decision have?

If either or both Grey Whale populations assessed as endangered are listed as such under SARA, prohibitions would immediately come into effect in Canadian waters, making it illegal to kill, harm, harass, capture, take, possess, collect, buy, sell, or trade individuals of these populations. A recovery strategy and subsequent action plan would be developed to identify measures to address known threats and to establish population and distribution objectives that support recovery and survival. Critical habitat (the habitat necessary for survival or recovery) would need to be identified, to the extent possible, in a recovery strategy or action plan and protected from destruction. It is possible to permit or exempt activities for certain purposes provided preconditions are met and survival and recovery of the populations is not jeopardized.

Because the Eastern North Pacific population is no longer recognized by COSEWIC, it will be removed from SARA. Regardless of a listing decision, all Grey Whale populations and their habitat will continue to receive protection under the Fisheries Act and the Marine Mammal Regulations.

Related information

Before completing this survey, you may wish to review the additional information at the links below:

Contact us

Species at Risk Program, Pacific Region
200-401 Burrard Street
Vancouver, British Columbia, V6C 3S4

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