Big oil vs. big whale: Will pipeline trump iconic orca?

Killer Whale in the Pacific

‘Species at risk’ designation could mean unique court challenge for NEB and Trans Mountain project
By Jason Proctor, CBC News Posted: May 21, 2016

If you don’t live on the West Coast, perhaps it’s hard to appreciate just how poorly approving an oil pipeline at the expense of an endangered population of killer whales might play out.

To give it an Eastern perspective, it’s a bit like saying Bonhomme might have to die to make way for a new museum dedicated to Stephen Harper’s legacy.

In approving Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline expansion this week, the National Energy Board said it weighed the benefits of the project against its burdens.

Among the “adverse effects” deemed to be most “significant” were those likely to impact a population of about 80 southern resident killer whales found off the coast of Vancouver Island.

Those are the same orcas which threaten to capsize ferries every time a captain announces a sighting off one side of the boat. Marine mammals immortalized in statues, stuffed animals, keychains, paintings, posters and T-shirts bought as lasting reminders of a trip to the West Coast.

That’s to say nothing of the central role killer whales play in the mythology and practices of many coastal First Nations. Too bad — the NEB says associated “Aboriginal cultural use” will also likely take a “significant” hit.

But the iconic orca may yet have a card to play beyond popularity: the law.

‘OK’ to push species towards extinction?

Southern resident killer whales are designated under the Species At Risk Act (SARA), which means federal prohibitions exist against anything that would harm them or habitat considered critical to their survival.

Misty MacDufee, a biologist with the Raincoast Conservation Foundation, says she won’t be surprised to see a legal challenge pitting the powers of SARA against those of the regulatory tribunal.

“They’ve essentially said that it’s okay to push this species towards extinction,” says MacDuffee.

“I don’t know that the NEB are empowered to make a decision about whether a unique population that’s protected under the laws that we have federally — that it’s OK for them to make [that] decision.”

Although orcas may no longer be threatened globally, the southern resident killer whales are considered a unique ecotype, or as MacDuffee explains it, “a genetically unique population.”

They’re considered at risk because of their small population, low reproductive rate and a variety of threats including marine traffic and food supply.

A human equivalent might be that of a small tribe whose cultures and practices are threatened; people may still exist as a whole, but one genetically and culturally unique group face extinction…

To read the full article please visit the CBC News website.