Photo credit: Frank Kehren licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

by Jan L. Mayes, MSc, Audiologist

Underwater noise could be the death knell for endangered Southern Resident orcas in the Pacific Northwest. In the wake of the UN report on climate change, Canada plans to fund climate action with fossil fuel revenue from the federal government’s Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project. This currently unfinished pipeline will bring diluted bitumen from the Alberta oil sands to a yet unbuilt commercial tanker port in the Salish Sea, off the coast of British Columbia.

As of August 4, 2021, there were only 74 Southern Resident orcas left. This orca species is at risk of extinction from various factors, but underwater noise pollution is a prime threat from commercial shipping, fishing vessels, ferries, boaters, and whale watching tours. It is good news that three orcas are currently pregnant, although calve mortality is high. Some of you may remember Talequah’s tour of grief in 2018.

In a 2019 Raincoast Conservation Foundation livestream on how to protect these whales from extinction, scientists recommended no new noise pollution in the Salish Sea and a reduction of existing Salish Sea noise by 50% or minus 3 dB. In 2020, Washington finalized rules to better protect Southern Resident orcas from vessel noise.

News about Canada’s decision to proceed with the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project ignores the Southern Resident orca extinction risk from the new commercial tanker port. The City of Vancouver will build Deltaport 2 in the Salish Sea for shipping the diluted bitumen internationally. Deltaport 2, a planned 266 acre man-made island, will be constructed adjacent to Deltaport 1, a 210 acre man-made island, which is currently Canada’s largest commercial shipping container terminal. Deltaport 2 will be situated about 3 miles offshore from the Fraser River estuary and a migratory bird sanctuary. The underwater construction will take years, and materials will be dredged from the mouth of the Fraser River where endangered Chinook salmon spawn, a key food source for the orcas.

No marine environmental assessment has ever been conducted to determine specific Trans Mountain pipeline risks to Southern Resident orcas. The new tanker port is predicted to result in seven times more commercial shipping traffic in the orcas’ critical habitat. In addition, diluted bitumen sinks in water, so a spill could be catastrophic for marine species. The estimated clean-up cost of submerged oil and contaminated sediment was over $1 billion for a 2010 diluted bitumen spill in the Kalamazoo River, Michigan.

Canadian pipeline and shipping port expansion plans are in stark contrast to Whatcom county in Washington State, which recently banned new fossil fuel infrastructure.

Some say that there are other species of orcas that swim through the Pacific Northwest, so it doesn’t matter if this species goes extinct. But there are many stakeholders beyond the energy industry, and they include coastal First Nations who consider Southern Resident orcas culturally and spiritually significant. At the future of whale recovery live stream, Misty McDuffy of the Raincoast Conservation Foundation said this would be the first extinction where we know the name of every member of the species.

The Canadian federal government just had an election for September 20, 2021. Climate change, reliance on fossil fuels, and zero emission targets were key election issues, but the potential impact of the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project on endangered Southern Resident orcas was not part of the national political conversation. Perhaps international input is needed, given people in the U.S. and globally might also care about Southern Resident orca extinction.

Jan L. Mayes is an international Eric Hoffer Award winning author in Non-Fiction Health. She is also a science enthusiast and newly retired audiologist still specializing in noise, tinnitus-hyperacusis, and hearing health. You can read more of Jan’s work at her site, www.janlmayes.com.