Comment: Greenlighting a path to orca extinction: Kinder Morgan must be rejected

I earn my living introducing people from all over the world to the majestic beauty of the West Coast and its wildlife. Every day, I watch as tourists are blown away by encounters with wild killer whales, and I’m told how lucky British Columbians are to have such magnificent creatures and unspoiled natural beauty right in our backyard.

But for how much longer will we be able to say that?

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Kinder Morgan’s pipeline and tanker proposal threatens the survival of our iconic killer whale population and, as a result, it puts the multimillion-dollar whale-watching industry on the line.

Killer whales are the ultimate predators of the world’s oceans; they sit at the very top of the food chain. Here in the Salish Sea, they serve as ambassadors for one of the richest marine ecosystems on our planet. They are intelligent, iconic and treasured.

They’re also incredibly vulnerable. The southern resident killer whale population has been listed as endangered under both Canadian and American species-at-risk laws for more than a decade. This means the population is at risk of imminent extinction.

They’ve been navigating a lack of food and pollution for years; however, a surge in shipping traffic and the attendant increase in disturbance — never mind the risk of a major oil spill — could very well push the remaining population to the brink. Having lost two adults in the past few months, we’re down to just 80 southern residents.

In the heart of critical killer whale habitat, tanker traffic would increase seven-fold with the Kinder Morgan proposal. A recent study puts the increase in the risk of an oil spill at 375 per cent from Kinder Morgan and three other major projects. Another study showed that a spill in this area would have a 95 per cent chance of reaching the southern resident population, which spends the majority of the spring, summer and fall in this area.

Following the Exxon Valdez disaster, whales breathed oil vapours, their skin was coated with oil, and they ate contaminated prey. One of the pods stopped reproducing. The population collapsed and will soon go extinct.

The bottom line? One major spill anywhere in the Salish Sea will likely wipe the southern resident killer whales off the planet. Forever. The repercussions in our region’s marine ecosystem would be devastating; it would be a tragic and preventable loss to West Coast culture and identity.

A major spill could also wipe out my job, and my company — which employs 36 people — along with the livelihoods of thousands of others. It would be a massive billion-dollar hit to B.C.’s economy. Half a million people come to B.C. to go whale watching each year, contributing $27 million to the economy and providing 150 year-round and 200 seasonal jobs. When including other types of nature-based tourism, such as kayaking and wilderness tours, the sector provides thousands of jobs and a billion dollars in annual visitor spending.

These jobs are here today, and the economic value of our industry is growing every year. Compare these threatened jobs to the 50 permanent jobs the Kinder Morgan project would create, in a sunset industry reliant on low oil prices that might never recover.

In a stark admission, the National Energy Board concluded that the tanker traffic generated by the Kinder Morgan expansion would result in “significant adverse effects to the Southern resident killer whale,” and that there aren’t any measures to mitigate these impacts.

The board also found the project will contribute to cumulative effects that are already jeopardizing the whales’ recovery, and will destroy legally protected killer whale habitat, even without a spill.

The NEB approved the project anyway, in essence green-lighting a path to extinction for this endangered population. Some legal experts believe this is a violation of Canada’s Species at Risk Act.

However, the final decision rests with our prime minister and cabinet — and it’s dismaying to see signs indicating that approval is likely.

Members of the Pacific Whale Watch Association are making every effort to help protect the whales that this industry relies on. In the past few years, there has been a significant increase in funding for conservation and research initiatives; code of conduct has been changed in response to new research to further minimize our impact on wildlife.

We continue to work with biologists and researchers to provide invaluable information from direct sightings and improve the sustainability of this important industry. We believe in the power of ecotourism to educate and inspire our guests to become ambassadors for the oceans and all wild places.

But we can’t do it alone. My urgent message to the prime minister is simple: Our killer whales are at a tipping point; they cannot survive the significant and adverse effects of Kinder Morgan. The whales, our thriving coastal economy, and our province deserve better.

Brett Soberg is co-owner and captain of Eagle Wing Whale & Wildlife Tours in Victoria.

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