Only 75 killer whales remain in the Salish Sea, a waterway that straddles the western U.S.-Canadian border.

Only 75 killer whales remain in the Salish Sea, a waterway that straddles the western U.S.-Canadian border. Shutterstock/Doptis

For Marine Life, New Threats from a Fast-Tracked Canadian Pipeline

A new Canadian government-backed pipeline that will triple the amount of thick Alberta tar sands oil flowing to a British Columbia port poses significant risks for a threatened population of killer whales and other coastal marine life.

Nearly everyone involved in the controversy over Canada’s troubled Trans Mountain Pipeline was surprised when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced in May that his government would take over the construction from a private company to ensure that additional tar sands crude oil can move from northern Alberta to a port in British Columbia.

The 715-mile Trans Mountain pipeline expansion would add a parallel pipeline to an existing one, increasing the route’s capacity from 300,000 to 890,000 barrels per day and helping producers sell crude and refined oil to Asian markets. Trudeau’s action means that a pipeline many thought might never be built is now on a fast track to completion by 2020. Construction is scheduled to begin this month.

The expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline poses a range of environmental impacts and risks — from the possibility of leaks as the new line crosses hundreds of streams, rivers, and lakes across the breadth of the British Columbia wilderness, to the fact that it will allow Alberta’s massive tar sands reserves to be further exploited and contribute large amounts of CO2 to the atmosphere. But the most immediate and serious impacts may be to the marine environment along the coast of British Columbia, where the pipeline would terminate at the Westridge Marine Terminal at Burnaby near Vancouver.

The pipeline is expected to lead to a sharp increase in oil tanker traffic in the Salish Sea — a network of inland ocean waterways shared by British Columbia and Washington State — from four tankers a month to 34, along with associated construction and other ship  traffic. Marine biologists are especially concerned about the impact of increased ship noise on a highly endangered population of 75 killer whales, known as the “southern residents,” shared by the two countries. 

The pipeline “is likely to result in significant adverse effects to the southern resident killer whale,” a government report found.

“It’s insane to be building this pipeline,” said Karen Wristen, executive director of the Canadian nonprofit, Living Oceans Society. “There’s too much noise already in critical habitat and adding 800 tanker trips a year (400 into port and 400 out) to existing levels of noise is not going to be possible” without significantly impacting the whales. 

Environmental organizations, fishermen, scientists, and First Nations groups are concerned about a host of other potential environmental threats, including a spill of the heavy tar sands oil, which would not only threaten whales and fish but also millions of seabirds that breed or travel through the region; collisions between tankers and whales; and the effects of increased shipping traffic on populations of key fish species such as Chinook salmon and Pacific herring.

The southern resident killer whales are already in trouble, having declined from about 100 in the 1970s to 75 today. For an unknown reason, breeding is compromised — no new calves have survived to the juvenile stage since 2015 — which means the population will likely continue to decline, even without the pressure of more ship traffic or the possibility of an oil spill. Officials in the U.S. have been working for more than a decade to recover the precarious population. It is listed as “at risk” in Canada. 

Canada’s federal government says it is putting new safeguards in place to protect the whales and other wildlife of the Salish Sea. “Before any shipping begins, as part of its decision to approve the project, our government committed to immediately develop strong actions to implement the recovery plan for the southern resident killer whale that is designed to more than mitigate the effects of the project,” said MacKenzie Radan, a spokesperson for Natural Resource Minister Jim Carr.

That includes new voluntary and mandatory actions to reduce noise from marine traffic, steps to reduce the impacts of pollutants, and the restoration of coastal salmon habitat to increase salmon numbers for the whales. As far heading off damage from oil spills, the government will expand the use of escort tugs with experienced pilots and build five new spill response stations.

Noise from ship traffic is a leading threat to the killer whales, also known as orcas. These whales are especially sensitive because they use sound for everything from navigating, locating prey, communicating, and even teaching. “These animals have culture,” said Brad Hanson, a biologist who is the team leader of the orca recovery project at NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center in Seattle. “These females have some sort of corporate knowledge about where to go and look for fish at different times of the year. They transmit knowledge on where and how to catch fish through generations.”

Shipping traffic to Trans Mountain's marine terminal [in foreground] in Burnaby near Vancouver is expected to increase from four oil tankers per month to 34.

Shipping traffic to Trans Mountain's marine terminal [in foreground] in Burnaby near Vancouver is expected to increase from four oil tankers per month to 34. John Hayward / Canadian Press

Experts believe that a decline in their prey, primarily Chinook salmon, and an increase in ship noise that interferes with echolocation makes the remaining fish harder to catch, meaning the whales may be starving.      

Most scientists believe that increased noise from the additional oil freighter traffic will affect the whales.  In 2016 Canada’s National Energy Board stated in a report on the Trans Mountain that it “is likely to result in significant adverse effects to the southern resident killer whale.”             

The increase in oil tanker traffic would be in addition to already high levels of noise in the region. The Port of Vancouver is the busiest in Canada and the noise pollution there has already caused serious problems for the southern residents and will worsen — even without the pipeline. A 2016 study found that the container business in Vancouver — containers ships are the loudest — will double by 2040. Last year, 20 leading experts from the United States, Britain, and Canada wrote a letter asking federal officials in Canada to reduce the noise pollution to protect killer whales and other species. “We urge you to produce a concrete, funded, science-based plan and schedule for reducing the already excessive level of underwater noise pollution in the Salish Sea from all sources and help enable the population’s recovery,” the researchers wrote.

The effects of noise extend beyond whales to much of the marine food web, some experts say. Because sight is limited in the sea, sound is the most dominant sense. All fish studied, out of 20,000 known vertebrate species, are able to hear and some 800 species make sounds of their own to hunt, mate, navigate and communicate. The science is young, but a review of 115 studies by a researcher at Dalhousie University earlier this year shows that the list of impacts on many different species is long, from disorientation to hearing loss.

Another major concern is the possibility that a large spill of thick, tar sands crude oil could doom the whales.

In whales and other species, shipping noise creates chronic stress that can affect reproduction, suppress the immune system, and cause weight loss, according Douglas Nowacek, a professor of conservation technology at Duke University. Impacts from noise and possible oil spills may have far-reaching effects if they reduce numbers of forage fish, such as Pacific herring, or cause them to flee. 

Abby Schwarz, a biologist from British Columbia who has studied fish behavior, said Pacific herring are virtually overlooked in Trans Mountain pipeline environmental assessments. She studied the effect of ship noise on herring, and found that they swam off to avoid noise from 50- to 60-foot fishing vessels — tiny compared to an 800-foot oil tanker.

The Port of Vancouver has launched something called the ECHO program that asks mariners to reduce noise pollution by having ships slow their speed and fixing the formation of bubbles — known as cavitation — on the propellers, a common problem that causes vibration and loud noise.

Another major concern is the possibility of a large spill of diluted bitumen, or dilbit, as the tar sands crude is known. The tankers must travel more than 90 miles through the narrow, treacherous, and busy waterways of the Salish Sea, including Haro Strait, near the San Juan Islands, a vital feeding ground for the orcas.  A large spill, if it occurred, could likely doom these whales. Research on how dilbit behaves in salt water is lacking. But experts say that killer whales aren’t able to detect and avoid conventional oil spills.

A pod of killer whales, also known as orcas, cruises past oil tankers in Burrard Inlet in Vancouver. 

A pod of killer whales, also known as orcas, cruises past oil tankers in Burrard Inlet in Vancouver.  CTV

Dilbit behaves differently than conventional crude; it floats in fresh water — for weeks, some research shows — which may make it easier to clean up, though it eventually sinks and becomes very difficult to remove from the system. On the other hand, it’s the consistency of peanut butter and to make it flow it is mixed with benzene, toluene, and other hazardous chemicals.  

“An oil spill can have a major impact on a population,” said Hanson. “You can lose half of the population in a very short period of time — months.” The 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska killed thousands of marine mammals, including many in an orca pod that numbered 22 individuals before the spill. That population is now functionally extinct. 

Birds too would be expected to suffer from an oil spill, especially since the Burrard Inlet, through which the ships must pass, is so rich in bird numbers and diversity. Species there include globally significant numbers of sea birds such as Barrow’s goldeneye, surf scoter, and western grebe. Coming in contact with even small amounts of oil can cause sea birds to lose the waterproofing in their feathers. An assessment of possible pipeline impacts, commissioned by the Tsleil Waututh First Nations people, estimated that a large-scale oil spill “could result in one of the top bird mortality events ever caused by oil because of the exceptional abundance and diversity of birds in Burrard Inlet and the Fraser Delta; such a spill would kill up to 500,000 birds.” 

Some local First Nations groups have deep concerns about the increase in industrialization on their doorstep, since many on the Pacific Coast here still make a subsistence living from the sea. Even a small dilbit spill could wipe out hard earned gains. The land of the Tsleil Waututh, the “People of the Inlet,” is across Burrard Inlet from the Westridge Marine Terminal, the end of the pipeline where the tankers will load.

“We have been rehabilitating sections of creeks where salmon spawn,” said Charlene Aleck, a spokesperson for Tsleil Waututh, which is part of the Salish coast culture and opposed to the pipeline. “And we’ve restored a clam bed garden, and just had our second harvest.” Even a small spill, she said, could wipe those out. Increased ship noise may cause more salmon to flee, in a place where spawning salmon have already decreased markedly in the last two years. 

The Canadian government vows to create a killer whale recovery plan that will “more than mitigate the effects of the project.”

Not all First Nations oppose the pipeline expansion, though, citing the jobs it would bring, and some are even considering buying a stake in the government’s pipeline venture.

A number of leading pipeline opponents have accused the National Energy Board of Canada — established to provide rigorous independent assessment of energy projects — of being captive to the pipeline industry and purposely ignoring potential environmental effects. Marc Eliesen, a retired energy company executive for BC Hydro and former deputy minister, resigned from the assessment process, claiming it was “fraudulent” and an “act of deception.” 

Opponents also are concerned that with the Canadian government building the pipeline and then selling it back to a private corporation, environmental regulations may be easier to subvert. In building the pipeline, the federal government apparently will have Crown immunity, which may limit the application of provincial laws. The Canadian government’s sovereign immunity status may also affect the applicability of U.S. environmental laws in shared waters.

Canadian officials dismissed the concerns. “The Trans Mountain project is in the national interest and we’re committed to ensuring it moves forward in the safest and most sustainable way possible,” said Radan.