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Increasing oil transport threatens orcas with extinction, Vancouver conference told

Jun 18. 15

By Larry Pynn
Vancouver Sun

Increased transport of oil in the Salish Sea — including from the planned expansion of Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline — is putting endangered southern resident killer whales at risk of extinction from a spill, a Washington state official said Thursday.

Don Noviello, a biologist with the Washington department of fish and wildlife, said the worst-case scenario would be a spill occurring when three pods get together to form a “superpod” representing the majority of the estimated population of 80.

“They’re on the brink and need all the protection they can get,” he told the Clean Pacific conference, a spill-prevention and response convention in Vancouver. “One ill-timed oil spill could be the event that pushes this population over the brink to extinction.

Fish-eating killer whales such as southern resident killer whales are at risk from ingesting oil when breathing at the surface, while mammal-eating transients face the additional risk of consuming prey that is also covered in oil.

Unlike smaller marine life, including sea otters, another at-risk species vulnerable to spills, there is no hope of rescuing and rehabilitating a whale caught in an oil spill. “You’re not going to catch 80 animals up to 30 feet log and bring them into captivity,” Noviello said. “There is no evidence that killer whales can detect and avoid oil spills.”

Among the methods under consideration for routing killer whales away from oil spills are low-flying helicopters, underwater firecrackers and metal oikomi pipes — which are banged on the sides of boats and have been used by the Japanese to herd dolphins for slaughter, he said.

Shipping risks to whales include not just pollution but excessive underwater noise and the risk of vessel strike. Other threats include inadequate runs of chinook salmon and harassment from whale watching vessels that come too close.

Noviello cited not just Kinder Morgan’s plan to twin its pipeline, but plans for shipment of oil in the Columbia River and out of Grays Harbor in Washington, a proposed coal port at Cherry Point near Bellingham and the planned Roberts Bank Terminal 2 container expansion project in South Delta.

About five double-hulled tankers ship oil out of Kinder Morgan’s Westridge Terminal each month in Burnaby. That number would increase to 34 tankers a month.

Port Metro Vancouver estimates 260 vessels would visit Terminal 2 annually, which translates into 520 transits through local waters.

At the same time more oil is being shipped by rail, including alongside the vulnerable shoreline of the Columbia River and Puget Sound.

“More oil is moving past some of these very sensitive populations,” Noviello said. “Spill prevention response has to be improved to counter those threats.

Areas of greatest importance to resident killer whales, such as Haro Strait in summer, are poised to receive the greatest increases in marine traffic.

After the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989, Noviello noted, one group of killer whales in Alaska has failed to successfully reproduce and is likely to go extinct.

He said options for reducing the risk to wildlife include:

• Expansion of Vessel Traffic Services to better monitor movements of ships on the coast.

• Double hulls for the fuel tanks on cargo ships, which carry enough fuel to seriously harm a coastline.

• Reduction of vessel speeds, establishment of one-way routing, and increased requirements for escort tugs.

• Increased inspections and slower speeds for oil trains along the coast.

The Clean Pacific conference was sponsored by the Pacific States/B.C. Oil Spill Task Force.

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