Fighting to protect Orcas from oil spills

Killer whales in BC remain in trouble despite some recent action by thefederal government to designate their critical habitat.  That is why Dogwood Initiative and other environmentalgroups are in court to force the federal Departments of Fisheries and Oceans(DFO) to use all the tools at its disposal to protect Orcas

Declining salmon stocks, physical and acoustic disturbance from increasedshipping, toxic contamination from industrial activities like oil tankers and pulpmills, and acoustic impacts from dredging, seismic testing and military sonarall threaten the Orcas with extinction.

Yet the order DFO issued under Canada’s Species At Risk Act (SARA)has many potential interpretations.  WhileDogwood Initiative and the other groups welcomed the precedent-setting order, weremain concerned the order could be interpreted to only apply to limiting thedestruction of the geophysical features of critical habitat. This narrowreading would not stop activities that negatively impact salmon populations,the main food source for resident killer whales, nor stop other damage causedby pollution, vessel traffic and acoustic disturbances.

So far DFO has refused to clarify what aspect of criticalhabitat the Order is intended to protect saying that the nature and scope ofthe Order will be determined over time through trial and error.

But leaving the lives of threatened and endangered KillerWhales to the whims of trial and error is not good enough. Dogwood Initiative andother groups want DFO to use the tools at its disposal to take action and weare going to court to see if the court agrees.

Time is of the essence. Scientists have identified as “potentiallycatastrophic” the impacts of oil spills in critical habitat. It has beenreported that 22 Orcas died in the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Yet a number of newoil tanker/pipeline projects are proposed for the Kitimat and Vancouver portsthat could bring hundreds of oil tankers into waters frequented by KillerWhales

Dogwood Initiative believes that one of the reasons DFO is not acting moreaggressively to protect Killer Whale habitat is that they don’t want tointerfere with proposals to bring tar sands tankers to BC waters, particularlyEnbridge’s Gateway project proposed for Kitimat and Kinder Morgan’s expansionof its tanker terminal in Burnaby.

It is well established that the routine and accidental discharge ofpetroleum products, such as during an oil spill from a transiting or berthed tanker,can cause immediate mortalities of Orcas and can contribute to decreases infuture survival rates through lingering effects on Orcas and on Orca foodsources.

In their Recovery Strategy, the Scientists highlighted this risk saying bothresident populations of orcas are at risk from an oil spill because “proposedexpansion of tanker traffic in the north and central coast of BC. … If moratorium…is lifted…transport ofoil may put northern resident killer whales at additional risk….

The Scientists emphasized the impact an oil spill would have,

“Killer whales do not appear to avoid oil, as evidenced by the 1989 Exxon Valdez in Prince William Sound, Alaska.Less than a week after the spill, resident whales were observed surfacingdirectly in the slick (Seven whales were missing at this time, and within ayear, 13 of them were dead. This rate of mortality was unprecedented, and therewas strong spatial and temporal correlation between the spill and the deaths”

Dogwood Initiative believes that one way to overcome DFO’s resistance toprotecting Orca’s critical habitat is to legislate an oil tanker ban on BC’snorth coast and in other important Orca habitat.  

But even when that happens, the numerous other threats to Killer Whales willstill need to be restricted by DFO. That is why a broader reading of the law isimportant. Hopefully, the Federal court will agree with us. We’ll keep youposted. 

Click here to see media release

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