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Canadian government pushes pipeline while NGOs push for action to save Southern Resident orcas

In disappointing news from Canada, Prime Minister Trudeau is sticking by his decision to move ahead with the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline – a controversial and long-debated expansion that would triple the amount of tar sands oil being moved to the coast in British Columbia (BC), where the oil would be loaded onto tankers headed out to sea directly through critical habitat for the endangered Southern Resident orca community.  Inland construction of the pipeline also impacts streams vital to the survival of salmon that both the Northern and Southern Resident orca communities rely on.

Oil tanker and barge traffic through this sensitive area would increase to as many as 408 tankers per year – a 700% increase in large vessels moving through orca habitat.  Not only does this significantly increase man-made noise and the potential for ship strikes, but also the risk of a catastrophic oil spill in Southern Resident orca habitat, which would be devastating for the small orca community and the entire ecosystem of the Salish Sea.  Two additional problems make the situation even more concerning:

1)      There is no marine mammal response plan for an oil spill in Canada, despite such a plan being considered a “high priority” for the Canadian Government; and

2)      The oil in the pipeline and tankers would be tar sands oil in the form of diluted bitumen (“dillbit”), a much heavier type that is very difficult and expensive to clean up after a spill. 

On top of all that, the ruggedness of the BC coast and the often challenging weather conditions can make response efforts even more difficult.  Concerns about the Canadian government’s ability to respond to emergency incidents have been rising with recent incidents off the BC coast and changes to a proposed tanker moratorium for the northern BC coast.

Although an oil spill protection program is being developed as part of Canada’s Oceans Protection Plan (OPP), announced in 2016, recent comments by Prime Minister Trudeau indicate that the OPP is inextricably linked to the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion.  At town hall meetings in BC, Trudeau said that programs to address climate change and oil spill protection would not move forward without the Trans Mountain pipeline.  Trudeau is portraying this as a funding issue – income from the pipeline is needed to fund these vital environmental protection programs – but these much-needed plans should not be tied to the fate of a disputed, highly controversial oil pipeline.  Canada needs to protect its beautiful coastlines and iconic marine life for their own intrinsic value, not enact programs to protect them from a threat the Government itself is creating.   

The BC Provincial Government and many First Nations in Canada strongly oppose the Trans Mountain pipeline, and legal action is ongoing.  The potential lasting impacts for people, the local environment, orcas, salmon and other marine life inhabiting the coastal waters of BC are too great for the Canadian government to disregard.  An oil spill response plan needs to be developed to protect the vulnerable Southern Resident orca population and the unique Salish Sea ecosystem from risks that are already present – this protective measure cannot only happen as a “companion piece” to something that significantly increases that risk.

With the OPP, a recent review of recovery efforts for three highly endangered whale populations, and the announcement of updated vessel regulations for the Southern Residents, the Canadian government appears to be taking action to protect and recover at-risk orca populations.  But with the looming threat of the Trans Mountain pipeline and record low salmon numbers returning to BC rivers, environmental groups in Canada want the government to do more, and act faster.  A coalition of organizations has launched an effort for emergency protection of the declining Southern Resident orca population, requesting an emergency order under the Species at Risk Act (SARA).  They are asking for increased protection of critical feeding areas from fishing and vessel traffic, limits on salmon harvest in those key areas, and speed limits for large vessels – all actions that are supported by Canadian orca recovery plans and can be done quickly with an immediate impact. 

Not having enough salmon is the biggest threat to the survival of the Southern Resident orcas, and increasing noise from vessel traffic can make it harder for the orcas to find salmon, while boat presence can disrupt the actual act of successfully catching a salmon.

The public is invited to weigh in on this effort and make their voices heard in demanding swift action to save the Southern Resident orcas.  The Canadian coalition gathered signatures through March 1st on letters to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Environment and Climate Change Canada, and Prime Minister Trudeau.  The Southern Residents are a transboundary population, and their survival is important to us here in the US as well, so US residents were encouraged to join the effort.  People on both sides of the border care about the future of the Southern Residents and our shared home, and we want to see decision-makers on both sides step up to take action to save this unique orcas community.

Take Action:

While our Canadian counterparts are hard at work north of the border to help these orcas, we’re focusing on several measures here to increase protection for the Southern Residents.  Through efforts to develop local legislation, continuing to push for expanded critical habitat in the US, and increasing salmon survival, with your help WDC is making progress to protect the endangered Southern Resident orcas, the salmon they depend on, and our shared home.

A Killer Whale Emergency from Raincoast Conservation on Vimeo.