Terminal 2 Backgrounder: Impacts on Southern Resident killer whales

The Port of Vancouver is proposing to double the size of its shipping terminal at Roberts Bank (next to the Tsawwassen Ferry Terminal). The Port’s existing terminal is already a significant presence in Georgia Strait. Its 210-acre container terminal connects to the largest coal terminal in North America. A four-kilometre long causeway across the tidal flats of the Fraser estuary connects the terminal to the shore.

The expansion for Terminal 2 will place further stress on the Fraser estuary that has already lost more than 70% of its natural habitat. Raincoast is particularly concerned about the impacts from the terminal on Fraser Chinook salmon and Southern Resident killer whales. These wildlife populations are already considered at risk of extinction by the Canadian government. 

Southern Resident killer whales

The federal review panel for the Roberts Bank Terminal 2 project concluded it will have “significant adverse and cumulative effects” on Canada’s endangered Southern Resident killer whales. This means Terminal 2 expansion increases the likelihood that Southern Residents will go extinct.

Population viability analysis examines the likelihood of extinction for endangered wildlife. Five years ago, the chance that the 80 Southern Resident killer whales alive in 2015 would be functionally extinct in 100 years was 9%.12

Since 2015, the risk of extinction has increased. In 2020, the chance the 72 whales alive now will be functionally extinct within a century is 59%.3 The abundance and quality of their food (mainly Chinook salmon), and the ability to successfully catch this prey given the growing levels of underwater noise, are key reasons these whales face extinction.

Terminal 2 will increase the number of container ships transiting Canadian waters of the Salish Sea by about 25%. 4 When Southern Residents are using the inside waters of the Salish Sea, they are in the presence of boats and ships about 85% of the time.5 The panel concluded that noise levels within the Salish Sea are already too high for Southern Resident killer whales.

More ships increase underwater noise and disturbance. Ships reduce the amount of time whales can feed without noise interfering with the echolocation their predatory search behaviour depends on to catch salmon. Calculations of reduced feeding success for Southern Resident killer whales in the presence of vessels can be as high as 19% when vessels are a near continuous presence.6

Underwater noise and disturbance can reduce the amount of food that killer whales catch. Because these whales are ‘nutritionally-stressed,’ they cannot afford to lose meals to disruption from more vessels. Noise and disturbance from more ships going to Terminal 2 is a significant threat to their survival.

Unfortunately, reduced foraging success from the increase in shipping noise is not the only adverse impact that Terminal expansion would have on Southern Resident killer whales. The review panel also concluded the terminal would have significant adverse cumulative effects on the survival of Fraser Chinooks salmon, especially runs from the South Thompson and Lower Fraser parts of the watershed. Fraser River Chinook salmon are a significant food source for Southern Resident killer whales in the spring and summer.


Federal Review Panel Report for the Roberts Bank Terminal 2 Project. 2020. Prepared by The Review Panel for the Roberts Bank Terminal 2 Project March 27 2020. Cat. No: En106-229/2020E-PDF

ISBN: 978-0-660-33786-9. Canadian Impact Assessment Registry Reference No. 80054

Lacy, R.C. 2020. Declaration of Robert Lacy, Ph.D. Case No. 2:20-CV-00417-MLP.  Filed in the United States District Court Western District of Washington by the Wild Fish Conservancy. May 8 2020

Lacy, R.C., K.C. Balcomb III, L.J.N. Brent, D.P. Croft, C.W. Clark, and P.C. Paquet. 2015. Report on Population Viability Analysis model investigations of threats to the Southern Resident Killer Whale population from Trans Mountain Expansion Project. Attachment E, Ecojustice – Written Evidence of Raincoast Conservation Foundation (A70286), National Energy Board (Canada). 120 pp. Available at http://docs.neb-one.gc.ca/fetch.asp?language=E&ID=A4L9G2.

Lacy, R. C., R. Williams, E. Ashe, K. C. Balcomb III, L. J. N. Brent, C. W. Clark, D. P. Croft, D. A. Giles, M. MacDuffee and P.C. Paquet. 2017. Evaluating anthropogenic threats to endangered killer whales to inform effective recovery plans. Scientific Reports7(1): 14119

  1. Functionally extinct is the point where the population has no biological ability to recover, such as one sex, no breeding females or too few individuals.
  2. Lacy et al. 2017
  3. Lacy 2020
  4. Based on the Review Panel’s expected increase of 1.5 ships/day or 520 transits/year for a total of 2046 transits/yr in 2030. If tanker traffic from the Trans Mountain expansion and other increases are considered, vessel traffic is expected to increase by 37% above 2015 levels.
  5. Lacy et al. 2015
  6. Based on calculations in Lacy et al. 2015.

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