Endangered BC orcas could face extinction with Trans Mountain approval

CTV's Graham Slaughter speaks at length with Raincoast about what approval means

Graham Slaughter, CTVNews.ca Writer

View this story on CTV’s website with video and photos

British Columbia’s endangered population of southern resident killer whales are more likely to go extinct, now that the Liberal government has approved Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline, some environmental scientists say.

The whales, which roam the southern coast, are symbolically important for several First Nations and also attract tourism dollars.

Raincoast Conservation Foundation, a scientific body that advocates for wildlife issues, says it is considering legal action since the government greenlit the contentious project, which would significantly increase tanker boat traffic in the Salish Sea, where the 80 whales live and hunt salmon.

Even without an oil spill or whales being struck by tankers, the group fears that persistent boat noise would overpower the orcas’ ability to hunt and communicate using echolocation.

“Even if this project goes completely according to plan — no ship strikes and no oil spills — just the increase in noise alone dramatically increases the risk of extinction,” Misty MacDuffee, a biologist and wild salmon program director for the group, told CTVNews.ca.

Similar concern for the orcas has been voiced by Green Party Leader and Saanich Gulf Islands MP Elizabeth May, who has vowed to go to jail if necessary to fight the project.

How tankers impact killer whales

To understand how boat noise could seriously affect the orcas, it’s important to understand how they hunt. Orcas that hunt fish – such as the southern residents – use chirps and clicks to size up a fish, locate its whereabouts and communicate with other whales amid the underwater hunt.

MacDuffee says that when tanker boats are in the region, those chirps and clicks become “masked” by the drone of engine noise.

“Foraging decreases in the presence of boats. And right now in the Salish Sea, vessel traffic is present about 85 per cent of the time for whales,” she said. “And we know that vessel traffic is going to go to 100 per cent.”

Southern resident orcas don’t live exclusively in the waterways between B.C. and Washington. The whales are known to swim up the western coast of Vancouver Island and travel as far south as California in colder months.

But the whales have evolved from generation to generation to rely on the chinook salmon hunt in southern B.C. during warmer months — an instinctive behaviour that isn’t likely to change on a dime.

“There’s not a whole lot of other options. It’s not like they can switch their dominant food source. So they’re really relying on this general region for chinook,” MacDuffee said.

To make matters tougher, the population’s diminutive size means that the loss of just a single whale has broad repercussions. If one whale doesn’t get enough to eat and starves or is struck by a tanker, the consequences affect the larger group.

What about B.C.’s other orcas?

Southern residents aren’t the only whales in B.C. There are also the northern resident killer whales, which naturally swim in northern waters, and seal-hunting transient orcas, which travel across the coast. MacDuffee says northern resident whales wouldn’t be directly affected by the Trans Mountain pipeline due to where they live, but transients could be seriously harmed by an oil spill.

MacDuffee said the southern residents are “on a precipice” and that, at the moment, their fate can fall either way. According to a population viability analysis by the Raincoast Conservation Foundation, the southern resident killer whales can be saved if noise in the region is reduced and food is made more available.

“If we take a different course, we can recover this population,” she said. “But doing nothing isn’t going to recover the population. And adding horrific stressors is only going to make it worse.”

MacDuffee said the Raincoast Conservation Foundation plans to weigh its legal options in the coming days. The group has already challenged the National Energy Board’s decision to approve the project on the grounds that it didn’t adequately consider the Species at Risk Act, which stipulates that “significant adverse effects” cannot be placed on an endangered population.

She insisted that the loss of the southern residents wouldn’t simply be a sad day for science – it would be a cultural blow.

“For British Columbians, these are iconic animals that help distinguish who we are here on the coast,” she said. “Pursuing something simply because it’s economically profitable for a certain segment of society, that’s just not good enough anymore. These trade-offs are no longer acceptable.”   ………

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Coastal wolf with a salmon in its month.
Photo by Dene Rossouw.