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Increased Oil Tankers, Coal Exports a Threat to B.C.’s Struggling Resident Killer Whale Populations

Residents of the Salish Sea region spanning B.C. and Washington State were horrified recently at a photograph taken of a Southern Resident killer whale that appeared undernourished, with ribs visibly protruding from his side.

That idea that local killer whales might be starving is central to new research by the Raincoast Conservation Foundation that found Tweet: #Orca whales in southern BC are severely affected by depleted salmon runs & shipping vessel disturbance http://bit.ly/2aSEpow #bcpolikiller whales in southern B.C. are severely affected by depleted salmon runs and shipping vessel disturbance.

“The lower Fraser River is one of the most important Chinook salmon runs and watersheds for Southern Resident killer whales,” Raincoast biologist Misty MacDuffee told DeSmog Canada.

“We are compromising those salmon at every stage whether it is their early life history or their marine survival or their route to spawning grounds.”

Raincoast’s research has found the number of resident killer whales is highly correlated with the number of Chinook salmon.

MacDuffee said Raincoast is concerned the cumulative impacts of increased tanker traffic, coal exports and noise disturbance in the watershed will keep the Chinook salmon population and — with it — the killer whale population dangerously low.

The federal government recently released an Action Plan for resident killer whales and Raincoast is asking the public to provide comment on the plan by August 14.

Decades of Human Activity on Killer Whales

MacDuffee said B.C.’s Southern Resident killer whales have been negatively affected by human activity since the aquarium’s live capture trade in the 1960s and 1970s removed more than 50 individuals from the population.

“It had a real impact both socially and biologically on the population,” she said, adding it never recovered.

In 2002 the Southern Residents were listed as a species of special concern under the federal Species at Risk Act but no steps have been taken to recover them. Over the last four decades the population has not grown and has in the last 14 years begun to decline.

Low Chinook rates can account for some of that decline, MacDuffee said, but “it’s more complicated than that.”

“Killer whales use sound to catch salmon and where there is a lot of noise disturbance it is much harder for whales to catch fish.”

Raincoast conducted a Population Viability Analysis that found Southern Resident killer whales will require more Chinook salmon and less noise and disturbance from vessels to survive.

That puts killer whale survival at odds with plans for increased tanker traffic and coal exports from Vancouver.

Raincoast is an intervenor in the review of the expansion of Delta Port, a major shipping expansion led by Port Metro Vancouver. The group also acted as intervenors in the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline expansion review which would increase tanker traffic 574 per cent over 2010 levels to 408 tankers per year.

“They’re planning a huge increase in shipping and our analysis…shows killer whales can’t handle any more noise,” MacDuffee said. She added LNG shipping terminals could mean a significant rise in marine traffic on the B.C. coast.

Although a draft recovery strategy for resident killer whales was first released in 2008 the document lacked meaningful action, MacDuffee said. She added an improved draft recovery strategy was released in 2011 but nothing came of it.

MacDuffee added there is no shortage of information about this population. “This is probably one of the most studied whale populations in the world.”

“It doesn’t mean we know everything. But that can’t be a substitute for not taking action.”

The federal Action Plan, while an improvement on previous plans, doesn’t have enough specific, implementable action, MacDuffee said.

Raincoast is calling for restrictions on Chinook commercial and recreational fisheries and a moratorium on increased shipping in the Salish Sea until a cumulative impacts analysis is undertaken.

Public comment on the federal government’s Action Plan for resident killer whales is open until August 14.

Image: Killer whales with the Delta Port export terminal in the background. Natalie Tsang via Flickr

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Thanks for being an avid reader of our in-depth journalism, which is read by millions and made possible thanks to more than 4,200 readers just like you.

The Narwhal's growing team is hitting the ground running in 2022 to tell stories about the natural world that go beyond doom-and-gloom headlines — and we need your support.

Our model of independent, non-profit journalism means we can pour resources into doing the kind of environmental reporting you won’t find anywhere else in Canada, from investigations that hold elected officials accountable to deep dives showcasing the real people enacting real climate solutions.

There’s no advertising or paywall on our website (we believe our stories should be free for all to read), which means we count on our readers to give whatever they can afford each month to keep The Narwhal’s lights on.

The amazing thing? Our faith is being rewarded. We hired seven new staff over the past year and won a boatload of awards for our features, our photography and our investigative reporting.

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