Coast guard responding to diesel spill near protected orca habitat

The Canadian Coast Guard is responding after up to 178 litres of diesel spilled near a protected killer whale habitat off northern Vancouver Island.

A citizen reported fuel on the beach and in the water near Port Harvey Marina, across Johnstone Strait from Vancouver Island and about 25 kilometres from Robson Bight Ecological Reserve.

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The marina is closed for the season.

The spill was initially reported at up to 1,100 litres, based on the capacity of the fuel tank from which it came. The estimate was reduced after Transport Canada flew over the area.

“At this point, it has been determined there is no recoverable product,” said Canadian Coast Guard spokeswoman Michelle Imbeau.

The coast guard dispatched a fast-response vessel out of Port Hardy to assess the area. Crews will remain on scene to search the immediate and surrounding area for recoverable product and any signs of pollution damage.

Tlowitsis First Nation Coun. Thomas Smith said the area where the spill occurred is an important part of the nation’s territory.

“We have a reserve within the confines of the bay and there’s shellfish there. That would be the greatest concern, if it damaged those beaches,” Smith said.

Shellfish harvesting has closed recently because of concerns about contamination from motor boats, as well as runoff from homes, he said.

He said he hopes the spill doesn’t worsen the situation. “We’re hoping the impact will be minimal,” he said.

Karen Wristen, executive director of the Living Oceans Society, said diesel can pose respiratory and skin problems for orcas.

“We do know that whales, as they surface, don’t appear to differentiate between water that has oil on top of it and water that doesn’t,” she said.

On Monday, another diesel spill occurred at a fish farm near Echo Bay, about 40 kilometres away.

About 600 litres spilled into the ocean overnight, after staff transferred fuel from one tank to another and left a nozzle unattended.

Bob Chamberlin, elected chief of the nearby Kwikwasat’inuxw Haxwa’mis First Nation, called the spill response inadequate and said it posed a threat to shellfish harvesting on nearby beaches.

asmart@timescolonist.com

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