The federal government has stripped the North Pacific humpback whale of its status as a “threatened” species, removing a potentially significant legal hurdle out of the way of the multi-million-dollar Northern Gateway pipeline project.

The humpback, which wows whale watchers off the B.C. coast, will be downgraded to a “species of special concern,” thereby losing the protections it receives under Canada’s Species at Risk Act (SARA). The government outlined its decision in the latest edition of Canada Gazette.

Under SARA, the federal government must protect the natural habitats of “threatened” species, and develop plans for their recovery.

The reclassification means that the North Pacific humpback “would no longer be subject to the general prohibitions set out in SARA, nor would its critical habitat be required to be legally protected under SARA. However, other provisions of SARA would continue to apply.”

A “management plan” for the humpback, which includes measures for the species’ conservation, must be prepared within three years of its reclassification, the government notes.

The decision follows a 2011 report by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC), an independent board that advises the federal government on classifying Canada’s animal species.

Following the report, the government sent out 312 notices for public consultations regarding the potential change in the humpback’s status. It received 22 responses.

Four respondents were undecided, while five respondents were in favour of reclassifying the humpback, citing improving population numbers, the government says. Thirteen respondents were opposed, “the general concern was that the prohibitions were a deterrent against industry harming the individuals.”

“Some of the respondents indicated that the reclassification of the species could lead to increased activities in the waters along the British Columbia coast. These activities could result in increased tanker traffic, entanglements, and hazardous petroleum product spills.”

The move comes ahead of a pending decision by the federal government on the proposed $7.9 billion Northern Gateway pipeline project, which would move more than 500,000 barrels of Alberta bitumen from Alberta to Kitimat, B.C. If approved, the project will see increased tanker traffic off the B.C. coast as that oil gets shipped to markets overseas.

Environmental groups had previously warned that the government was obligated under SARA to protect the humpbacks against tanker traffic, which can lead to an increased risk of oil spills, noise pollution and collisions.

The decision to reclassify the humpback is the result of “the politics of pipeline approval,” Keith Stewart, a spokesperson for Greenpeace Canada, told CTV News Channel.

“They want to get this pipeline through, and this was an obstacle in their way.”

Greenpeace lawyers will study the government’s decision, Stewart said, to see if there is any legal recourse.

“There is some scientific evidence saying that humpbacks are a lot better off than they were 30 years ago, which is true, they are, because we have protected them: we no longer hunt them, we protected their habitat,” Stewart said. “And these new industrial projects are a major threat to where they raise their young.”

The NDP accused the federal government of changing the rules to weaken protection for humpbacks and pave the way for Northern Gateway.

“They want to build this thing,” NDP MP Nathan Cullen, who representsthe northern B.C. riding of Skeena–Bulkley Valley, told CTV’s Power Play Tuesday.

“It doesn’t matter what people in Kitimat say or people across British Columbia say, or across Canada. Conservatives have wedded themselves to this industry lock, stock and barrel, (and) want to see this thing go through no matter what effect it’s going to have on the planet.”

Late last year, a National Energy Board review panel approved the Northern Gateway project with 209 conditions. Earlier this month, residents of Kitimat voted against the proposed project in a non-binding plebiscite.

The federal government is expected to release its final decision on the project by summer.

Humpbacks 'not yet clearly secure'

COSEWIC assesses at-risk species every 10 years to determine whether to maintain their current classifications or whether the classifications must change.

The humpback was first designated as a “threatened” species in 2005 after a 2003 assessment found its population had been “heavily reduced” by commercial whaling. However, the board’s 2011 reassessment found no evidence of further population decline. Its 2011 report found the humpback population has been increasing by about four per cent per year since the early 1990s.

“While the species’ situation has improved tremendously over the last five decades, current numbers are still considerably smaller than the number that must have been present off the west coast of Vancouver Island before 1905,” the government, citing the latest COSEWIC report.

“This, combined with the potential impact of residual threats, is the reason why COSEWIC has determined that the Humpback Whale (North Pacific population) is a recovering wildlife species no longer considered to be threatened but not yet clearly secure. Therefore, COSEWIC considers this wildlife species as a species of special concern.”

The humpback whale faces a variety of threats, including entanglement in fishing gear, displacement from noise pollution and collisions with vessels, the government noted. The Fisheries Act offers some protections to the humpback, while Parks Canada does offer some protections to its habitat, it said.