Wednesday, May 03, 2006

The Southern Resident Killer Whale Conservation Strategy

Having designated the southern resident killer whales an endangered species, Fisheries and Oceans Canada is currently developing a conservation strategy for this icon of the Pacific northwest. The draft strategy under consideration recognises that there are a number of threats to the orcas, and accordingly proposes a series of measures to counter these negative effects and reverese the dwindling numbers.

The principal threats to southern resident killer whales, which number less than one hundred individuals at present, are environmental pollution, reduction in availabliity of prey, and disturbance of habitat from noise, ship traffic, etc. Potentially catastrophic oil spills are among the principal threats identified. The problem with the plan is that by focussing on a long-term recovery strategy, it fails to come to grips with the clear and present danger of an oil spill from a tanker, cargo vessel or cruise ship. A large spill from any one of these sources could wipe the local orcas off the map virtually overnight, or condemn them to eventual extinction, as was the case with the Exxon Valdez spill in Prince William Sound in 1989, where the local pod of orcas was decimated.

Clearly, measures need to be taken now to separate ship traffic from the whales, particularly in Haro Strait, where cargo vessels typically come within one kilometre of the whales every day during the summer months. It is one thing to have Vessel Traffic Separation Systems, radar, GPS, mandatory pilotage, lighthouses, foghorns and other navaids throughout the area, but as the recent Queen of the North ferry sinking up north demonstrated, accidents can still happen, and when they do the results can be disastrous. Fortunately in the case of the ferry tragedy, the environment was for the most part spared. However, will we be so lucky if, say, a fully-laden tanker out of Vancouver runs aground in Boundary Passage?

Consideration should be given to declaring the southern Gulf Islands an Area to Be Avoided ( ATBA ) under IMO rules. This way, traffic could be diverted to the American side, to perhaps Rosario Strait, where the Alaskan tankers currently naviagate on their way to the refineries at Ferndale and Anacortes. Moreover, Canadian law should require tug escorts for tankers in and out of Vancouver, just as our American cousins do. Limits should also be placed on the size of tankers, again as the Yanks do. We Canucks like to talk the talk when it comes to the environment, but on this issue we need to walk the walk; the Americans have a far more aggressive approach to marine environmental protection in this case than we do.

We also need to take a long hard look at the proposal to expand the Trans Mountain tanker terminal in Burnaby, for it is ludicrous to envisage an up to eigthfold increase in tanker traffic through the Salish Sea at the same time the government of Canada is entertaining proposals to conserve the endangered orcas. We have to ask ourselves: what do we value more, shipping goods and bulk cargo to and from Asia in much greater amounts in order to fuel our development, or the continued existence of these magnificent creatures. How much teeth will American and Canadian endangered species legislation have if development in the Georgia Basin/Puget Sound region is allowed to proceed unfettered, thereby sealing the fate of the marine mammals? Put another way, are we prepared to sacrifice our standing of living so that we can continue to enjoy watching orca whales in this part of the world?

These are difficult questions, and they involve tough choices. Scientists give southern resident killer whales a very slim chance of surviving the next hundred years, no matter what is done to protect them. But, does that mean we should not try? Does that mean that we shouldn't even bother, because in effect we'd be wasting our time and money? Tell that to your grandchildren the next time they see an orca swim by. Life is all about choices, and even with the best of intentions and the most stringent controls on shipping and development the orcas may still disappear. Nevertheless, we have a duty, both moral and legal, to do all we can to bring the orcas back from the brink of extinction, to take measures to conserve them, to clean up their habitat, and to minimise the chances of a catastrophic oil spill wiping them out.

So, write your MP and MLA and tell them you're concerned about the way things are going in the Salish Sea. Tell them you worry about the survival of our beloved orcas if a third berth is added to the Deltaport terminal at Roberts Bank, as is currently planned, and an entirely new three-berth terminal added as well. Tell them you don't like Kinder Morgan's plans to dramatically increase the number of tanker movements from its Burnaby terminal through the Salish Sea either. Finally, participate in the federal consultation process for the Soutern Strait of Georgia Marine Conservation Area. In other words, stand up and be counted if you want to save the whales.


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