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Oil Tankers Could Doom Puget Sound’s Orcas


A file photo of orcas in Puget Sound with Seattle in the background.

A file photo of orcas in Puget Sound with Seattle in the background.

NOAA/Candice Emmons

Canada’s recent approval for the construction of a pipeline in British Columbia could signal big changes for killer whales in the Puget Sound.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau gave the green light to a pipeline proposed by energy giant Kinder Morgan to transport oil from the sands fields of Alberta to Burnaby, British Columbia, at a rate of 890,000 barrels a day. The problem for the orcas is that the land-based pipeline, nicknamed the Trans Mountain Expansion Project, is expected to bring a sevenfold spike in oil tanker traffic through the waters of the Salish Sea.

This carries heavy implications for local marine life, especially the orca population living in Puget Sound and along the coasts of southern British Columbia and Washington state.

Both the United States and Canada consider the orcas there to be endangered, and their declining population was causing experts to worry even before the pipeline proposal.

“Death by a thousand cuts, and this is a very deep cut,” says Deborah Giles, research director for the Center for Whale Research.

Giles explains that if the present rate of decline continues — even without the Trans Mountain Pipeline — the southern resident killer whales could die off before the end of this century.

Killer whales, sometimes called the “wolves of the sea,” are iconic animals in the Northwest. Native American and First Nation peoples on both sides of the border revere orcas, often depicting them in their artwork and literature. Some tribes believe the killer whale embodies the souls of deceased chiefs, others believe it rules the undersea world.

Some of the worry around the pipeline is the risk of an accident, namely an oil spill or a mishap with a vessel traveling near the coast. But even without an accident, there is an inherent risk for the orcas.

Like all cetaceans, the killer whales depend heavily on sound for communication, navigation and feeding. They use clicks, whistles and pulsed calls to figure out their relative location, discriminate prey from objects and interact with others using a dialect unique to each pod. The ability for killers whale’s to hunt, rest and socialize is hampered by boats, ferries and other vessels traveling through the water, Giles explains. The increased oil tanker traffic from the Kinder Morgan pipeline will simply compound that effect.

“They’re spending more energy to find less food and we’re adding the equivalent of a rock concert,” Giles says. “These whales will not survive.”

Karen Mahon of Stand Earth, a leader in the Canadian opposition to the pipeline, told reporters in a conference call that experts generally agree: The southern resident killer whales are doomed if the tanker traffic goes up.

Kinder Morgan says it is collaborating with “coastal communities, aboriginal groups and other stakeholders” to better understand the importance of protecting marine mammals like the killer whales. The company will be required by Canada’s National Energy Board to create a marine mammal protection program, to develop a summary of possible effects on aquatic life, and ways to mitigate those effects.

Three main resident killer whale populations live in the northeast Pacific Ocean. The Alaskan resident population is the biggest of the three, with more than 500 killer whales. The northern resident group has approximately 250 orcas and frequents the inland waters of Vancouver Island and Johnstone Strait at the north edge of the island. The southern resident group is the smallest.
 
The southern resident killer whale population consists of three pods. The J pod has 26 individuals, K pod has 19 and L has 35, totaling approximately 80 orca whales that spend most of the year foraging near the coasts of Washington and southern British Columbia. In comparison the northern resident group is doing much better; the adults seem much healthier and better fed, and their newborns are born in regular intervals and survive more often. This contrast, Giles says, shows that it’s harder for the whales to survive points near Washington and southern BC.

A 2014 report by NOAA found, among other things, that members of the southern residents killer whale population hunt less and travel more when vessels are present. They also suffer the most chemical contamination documented among marine mammals around the world, and they favor Chinook salmon as their main source of food — a species also in decline.

After the recent death of a 24-year-old orca mother, known as J28, and her 1-year-old baby calf, the southern resident population recently fell to the current 80, a low point that hadn’t been reached in decades.

“We’re losing them because they’re starving,” Giles said. “We know what to do to save these animals, we need to get more fish in the water for them to find, but so far that hasn’t been a priority of the [U.S.] federal government.”

Kinder Morgan admits that the project will increase traffic in coastal waters to about 350 tankers per year. According to the company, this accounts for roughly 6.6 percent of all large commercials vessels trading in the region.

“Impacts on the region’s whale population are occurring regardless of our Project and this is an issue that must be addressed by all marine users,” Kinder Morgan said in a statement in response to inquiries from Crosscut. “The solution lies in a group effort and Trans Mountain is taking a leadership role despite our relatively small contribution to the issue.”

Mahon, the director of Stand Earth, says the amount of noise from the tankers, which are bigger than most other vessels travelling through inland waters, will devastate the killer whales. “They are dependent on echolocation for fishing, mating, communicating,” she says. “And the tankers provide such a high level of noise disruption.”

Concern about the possibility of an oil spill are heightened, environmentalists say, because the vessels will be carrying bitumen, a type of oil that sinks in water. They say the presence of chemical diluents in the oil make a bitumen spill particularly harmful, pointing out that Trudeau’s decision to approve Trans Mountain came just six weeks after authorities struggled with the response to a spill from a tug boat that sunk off the coast of northern British Columbia.

Kinder Morgan’s response: “We understand the concerns raised about tanker traffic, spill prevention and emergency response, and that’s why we’ve carefully developed measures to protect communities and our ecosystems.” The same statement went on to explain that, as a result of the project, an investment of more than $150 million will be made in Western Canada Marine Response Corporation that will “further improve safety for the entire marine shipping industry.”

The investment will fund five new “response bases,” three of which will operate 24/7, along with new employees and vessels stationed at strategic locations along British Columbia’s southern shipping lane.

Rebecca Ponzio from Stand Up to Oil, a Washington-based coalition of environmental advocacy groups that oppose new oil terminals in the Northwest, says that lawmakers here are concerned. “Legislators are thinking about how to hold the oil industry accountable for the risks that they’re industry poses,” she said.

When he approved the pipeline, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the completion of the Trans Mountain Expansion Project is “in the best interest of all Canadians.” Proponents argue it would establish a bridge for oil companies to enter the Asian market. The project is slated to enhance local markets as well.

According to National Resources Canada, the construction of the pipeline will generate 15,000 temporary jobs and “unlock the true value of Canada’s natural resources.” Officials say the projected greenhouse gas emissions fit within the country’s climate plan for 2030.

According to Mahon, even in “the best case scenario,” in which case no oil is spilled, the added noise would still drive the southern resident killer whales into extinction within the next 50 to 100 years. For her, there is only one solution: block the pipeline and shipping traffic through legal action in Canada.

Nick Turner is an editorial intern for Crosscut. Born and raised in the Pacific Northwest, he’s currently studying journalism at Seattle University. He’s the managing editor for the campus paper, the Spectator.

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