Fear of harming whale habitat sidelines turbine project

The company that applied to investigate putting energy-generating turbines in a narrow passage that’s part of the threatened northern resident killer whales’ critical habitat has withdrawn the application.

“There was obviously a lot of public concern about that particular site and especially the values that site represents,” said ScotMerriam, principal of SRM Projects, a Nanaimo renewable-energy engineering company.

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“In learning about critical habitat, it became pretty apparent that this was just not a good candidate for our first tidal-energy project.”

SRM had applied to explore the possibility of putting the slow-moving turbines in Blackney Passage, the killer whales’ preferred route into Johnstone Strait. The application prompted an outcry from whale researchers and scientists.

The passage is also used by whales to prey on chum salmon caught in strong currents.

“The overwhelming message was that people do support clean energy, but they really don’t want a project at Blackney Passage,” Merriam said.

“We decided there were other potential sites we could look at and we want to have people on board with this whole undertaking.”

A public meeting will still be held in Port McNeill today to look at possibilities offered by tidal power. The company has already applied to the Integrated Land Management Bureau for investigative licences for sites near Campbell River.

The application’s withdrawal delighted Paul Spong, founder of OrcaLab, a Hanson Island whale research station.

“We had a good chat about the issues and sensitivities. [Merriam] was unaware there was a critical habitat designation in that area,” said Spong, who led a campaign to get concerned people to comment on the application.

“Once we got into how the whales used the area, he pretty much began to revise his plans.”

The clincher was the volume of comments that rolled into the provincial site, Spong said.

“He saw it was not a good idea,” he said.

“We are all in favour of using natural energy resources and there’s vast potential in the ocean that hasn’t been tapped at all so far, but we need to be careful.”

Whale researcher Jackie Hildering, who drew public attention to the proposal on her Marine Detective blog, is also relieved.

“With SRM Projects withdrawing the Blackney Pass application, they have shown a true dedication to sustainability,” she said.

However, one concern is that the killer whale critical habitat is not shown on B.C.’s mapping database used by proponents to search for suitable development opportunities, Spong said.

jlavoie@timescolonist.com˘

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