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Comment: National Energy Board is failing killer whales

Last month, the National Energy Board recommended approval of Kinder Morgan’s proposed expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline and accompanying increase in oil-tanker traffic.

Last month, the National Energy Board recommended approval of Kinder Morgan’s proposed expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline and accompanying increase in oil-tanker traffic. The NEB did so knowing this project jeopardizes the survival of the Salish Sea’s endangered southern resident killer whales.

Even without an oil spill, the Trans Mountain expansion poses a serious threat to the southern resident orcas. The evidence submitted by both Raincoast Conservation Foundation and Kinder Morgan shows that deafening noise from increased tanker traffic in the Salish Sea will place the orcas at a high risk of a population decline.

A team of international scientists from Raincoast and multiple research institutions who study killer whale behaviour, ecology, acoustics and population biology examined the effects of increased noise from Kinder Morgan’s oil tankers on the ability of the endangered orcas to sustain and rebuild their current population.

They found that increased noise would decrease the ability of killer whales to communicate, acquire food and survive. This would prevent the population from growing and increase its likelihood of extinction. The enduring threat of loud tankers and the additional possibility of an oil spill place killer whales in untenable and unacceptable peril. Even if the probability of a large oil spill is low, the consequence of such an event is potentially catastrophic.

Raincoast submitted these analyses as evidence to the NEB and the findings were unchallenged by Kinder Morgan and the federal government.

Noise from boats near southern residents can disrupt feeding activity and reduce foraging efficiency by masking the whale’s ability to echo-locate their prey. Research has shown that the whales reduce feeding activity by 25 per cent while near boats. At present, boats are nearby an estimated 85 per cent of the time that southern residents forage, and they are foraging in the presence of boats an estimated 78 per cent of that time.

With increased shipping traffic associated with the Trans Mountain expansion, southern residents could be exposed to boats up to 100 per cent of the time. According to the proponent, oil tankers and other shipping traffic would be a “near continuous” presence.

Raincoast also provided evidence to the NEB on the substantial threats that Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion presents to Fraser River salmon. Both chronic oil spills and catastrophic oil spills are direct high-risk threats to these fish.

From our analyses, it is clear that even small changes in the abundance and availability of chinook salmon could substantially affect the southern resident population. A 10 per cent decrease in prey resulted in a 73 per cent probability of the population declining below 30 animals. A 20 per cent reduction in prey combined with increased noise would lead to almost a 100 per cent chance that the southern resident population would fall below 30 animals, or effectively, become extinct.

By contrast, a 10 per cent increase in prey would result in a positive population growth and eliminate the chance of extinction or dropping to very small size.

The decision to recommend approval of this pipeline was carried out despite all evidence pointing to the consequent loss and degradation of habitat that has been designated as “critical” for survival of killer whales, the likely decline of endangered southern resident killer whales and the NEB acknowledgment that the adverse effects would be extensive and immitigable.

The NEB’s failure to ensure measures to lessen or avoid the adverse effects on the southern residents appears to be a legal violation of Canada’s Species at Risk Act. Accordingly, Raincoast and Living Oceans, represented by Ecojustice, have filed a judicial review of the NEB’s recommendation, arguing that it is unlawful.

In the federal government’s recent “action plan” for southern resident killer whales, Fisheries and Oceans Canada states: “The critical habitat identified in the recovery strategy is insufficient to achieve the species’ population and distribution objectives.”

Trans Mountain’s expansion would additionally compromise and destroy this legally designated critical habitat.

Southern resident killer whales are on a fulcrum; they cannot sustain additional disturbances. Trans Mountain’s tanker traffic would further degrade the southern residents’ critical habitat, and the attendant vessel noise would put these whales on an inevitable slide to extinction. It doesn’t have to end this way.

With the endangered chorus frog in Quebec, whose wetland habitat was threatened with conversion to subdivision, the federal government was compelled to act by safeguarding the habitat and protecting the frogs. Optimistically, this decision signals the government’s intent to rule in favour of science and endangered whales and reject the NEB’s Trans Mountain recommendation.

Chris Genovali is executive director of Raincoast Conservation Foundation. Misty MacDuffee is a biologist with Raincoast and Paul Paquet is Raincoast’s senior scientist.