October 18, 2005
As Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) and Vancouver Aquarium staff prepared to capture Tsu’xiit in Nootka Sound in 2003, documents obtained by Ha-Shilth-Sa reveal many within the department were already worried about outcomes.
While many people within Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) and their Scientific Panel were deeply committed to the reunification plan, documents obtained under the federal Access to Information Program show others within the department and panel were concerned the plan was ill-fated, and Tsu’xiit destined for captivity.
Under the proposed relocation plan finalized on October 2nd, 2003, Tsu’xiit would be removed from Nootka Sound where he had developed a reputation of bumping boats, and released in Pedder Bay. But if boats were a concern in Nootka Sound, they would be an even greater concern in the south coast area where the highest number of vessels on the west coast of the continent awaited.
“I must tell you I really have misgivings about even the minimum intervention approach being proposed by the group. From my perspective, anything that provides the prospect of this animal going to more habited areas, especially southern Vancouver Island, poses increased risk for both the whale and the public,” DFO Regional Director General John Davis wrote in an e-mail to Marine Mammal Coordinator Marilyn Joyce on May 15th, 2003. “Relocation would be a relatively high risk operation. There are many unknowns and experts agree that the likelihood of success for such an intervention is not assured,” he said. “I have major misgivings about this from a number of points - hazard to the animal, cost, necessity (???), and particularly, given the whale’s behaviour - the implications both for the whale and for the public. If we move this whale to our most populous area with huge numbers of recreational boats and other traffic, hazards to the whale from collisions, interactions with people, boaters, kayakers, etc. etc. will be hugely increased. There is also no guarantee that L98 will reunite with the southern resident groups of whales. This needs careful policy considerations in addition to whatever a scientific panel might conclude.”
“Since initial surveys, there have been no cases where a young whale observed to be absent from its matriline for more than a few days has returned independently to that matriline or any other group,” wrote Lara Sloan in a DFO Communications Plan. “The scientific panel concluded that an intervention involving capture and translocation of L98 to waters off southern Vancouver Island, where he would be released in proximity to his natal group, was unlikely to result in successful reunification. Such an operation may inadvertently put L98 at increased risk, as he would be placed in an unfamiliar area in which to forage for food, and the considerably higher density of boats would provide increased distraction and danger of injury,” she wrote. “Physical relocation would be considered high risk, as there are many unknowns. The Scientific Panel has concluded that L98 is not essential for the Southern Resident’s recovery [and] DFO is concerned that a failed attempt of reintroduction, may lead to the necessity to remove this animal from the wild for reason of public safety or to protect the whale.” DFO was uninterested in calls to remove Tsu’xiit from Nootka Sound, mostly because of the prohibitive costs such a mammoth effort would require. But then things changed.
A barrage of thousands of e-mails, phone calls, and media enquiries from around the globe began pouring in through every phone line and computer cable in every DFO office across the country. Hundreds of DFO personnel became involved in the file.
“DFO has been forced to respond to challenges posed by conservation groups and media,” wrote Joyce. “A few of these conservation groups have taken a keen interest in L98’s welfare and have been very active by promoting its relocation and reintroduction to the media.”
“Yes, the whole issue has reached a fevered pitch!” replied RDG John Davis. “I think Marilyn has many hundreds of such emails. I think the upper DFO echelon is taking notice, and a decision should be ‘coming down’ this week, I’m told.”
“DFO roles in this would likely be media management, oversight to ensure licence conditions are met and enforcement response,” wrote Marilyn Joyce in an e-mail to Max Stanfield and Brian Wong on September 24th, 2003. Then three lines further she wrote she “cannot handle the constant media calls”, suggesting media management might not be DFO’s forte’. “The media are constantly looking for details and interview. In addition to the Reunite Luna Website people and the Orca Network are fanning out information, opinions and speculations several times a day. In addition, I have well over 1000 emails which I suspect that Minister is also getting,” wrote Joyce.
Over the next month, operations went into high gear as DFO in consultation with their Scientific Panel developed a “Luna Reintroduction Action Plan” which was released to the public on October 2nd.
At least one member of the science panel suggested that it might be better for Luna if people simply forgot about trying to reunify him and sent him straight to the tank. On October 5th, 2003, David Bain from the University of Washington advised a group of NGOs that since DFO had “authorized the use of lethal force at any time if necessary to protect people . . . if you’re seriously concerned about the story ending in his death in the near future, you may want to advocate for permanent captivity now.”
As the reunification plan developed, the possibility of captivity in the case of a failed reunion was always part of the scenario, as the plan never specified how ‘failure’ would be determined. Back on August 6, 2003, before DFO had made its official decision to go ahead with reunification, Don Radford, a regional director at DFO, wrote about options under consideration, suggesting the plan had “some chance of reuniting L98 with its pod.” Then he added: “Also, demonstrating some effort was made to reunite L98 with its pod would make captivity a more publicly palatable option if that is the ultimate outcome.” Clearly, many people tasked with developing the reunification plan felt Luna was doomed to captivity.