Oil and the Puget Sound Orcas: Can They Survive a Spill?

There are plans to export large quantities of tar-sands oil out of Vancouver, B.C.

In calm seas off the west side of San Juan Island, my kayak bobs gently in a kelp bed. In the water about a quarter-mile distance from me, orcas mill and frolic, most likely hunting their favorite chinook salmon. I drop my hydrophone (an underwater microphone) into the water to listen to their distinct calls.

A low clanging—whang, whang, whang—fills my headphones. It is the steady and overpowering sound of a cargo ship, one of the regular features of underwater life in the San Juan Islands’ Haro Strait.

At first, a quick scan of the horizon doesn’t reveal the source of the noise. Finally, I spot it: A lone log-bearing ship heads out to the open sea around the very southern tip of Vancouver Island. Whang, whang, whang. It is at least nine miles away.

Finally, the ship rounds the bend, and the sea quiets for just a moment before the orcas’ distinct whistles, grunts and rat-a-tat-tat-tats fill the water. These are J pod whales from the Salish Sea’s famous and endangered Southern Resident orcas, and they are making the well-known calls known as “S1.”

Seemingly energized, the whales head toward my kelp bed and surround it, chatting loudly and rolling in the kelp. It crackles and pops underwater as the orcas rip up fronds while “kelping” themselves, something the Southern Residents are fond of doing, apparently for the massaging effect.

Officially, I’m working: I am experiencing all this while gathering research material for a book about killer whales that will be published this fall (tentatively titled Of Orcas and Men: What Killer Whales Can Teach Us, from The Overlook Press). But it is also undeniably a moment of pure delight, the sort of take-your-breath-away experience that anyone who has seen orcas in the wild understands.
At the same time, the ship and its noise cast a shadow—reminders that the recovery of these endangered whales is precarious. They face many challenges to their survival in the interior waters of the Salish Sea, probably the biggest of all being the availability of salmon, but their ability to hunt for their primary food source is also affected by the noise thrown up by the engines and propellers of these enormous ships. While there isn’t complete agreement on it, many researchers fear the underwater cacophony may affect not only the orcas’ ability to communicate with each other, but more fundamentally interfere with their ability to hunt successfully. 

These concerns gain greater urgency when you consider what’s on the drawing board for the port in Vancouver, British Columbia—more ships, many more ships, and among them, tankers carrying a black, sticky goo known as tar-sands oil. (Above: A detail from a map created by the Living Oceans Society shows the proposed oil tanker route (in red) through the treacherous Haro Strait. Courtesy of Living Oceans Society)

Beginning just this month, energy companies are lobbying the Canadian government for the right to ship large quantities of tar-sands oil down the same path these whales take in the summertime. It will be carried in an endless parade of noisy oil tankers, negotiating the frequently treacherous currents and hard-right angles of the San Juan/Gulf islands archipelago alongside threatened orca pods. And what the noise begins, a spill could finish, dooming these orcas to extinction in a few short years.

“Because the whales tend to group up, a catastrophic event such as a spill or a disease outbreak or something like that has the single largest potential to extirpate the population,” says Fred Felleman of Seattle, a marine traffic consultant and a killer whale biologist. “We’re looking at putting at risk every primary resource that keeps resident whales resident. One significant spill in any one of those areas is more than enough to break the back on a very, very delicate camel.”

The Southern Residents—divided into three families of 20–30 orcas, known as the J, K and L pods—spend half the year hunting salmon in the Salish Sea (which includes Puget Sound, the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the Strait of Georgia and the waters around the San Juan and Gulf islands). Scientists estimate that at one time—before live capture of orcas for display in marine parks in the 1960s and ’70s depleted their numbers by more than a third, and before many salmon runs became so horrifically depleted that they too became endangered—there were about 200 orcas in this distinct population. Near the end of the capture period, their numbers had declined to 70.

They rebounded in the 1990s, reaching a high of 96 whales, but then declined suddenly, falling to 80 whales in 2001. They were listed as endangered by federal authorities in 2005, but have not managed to rebound. As of 2013, the Southern Resident population stood at 80. If those numbers dip much further, the long-term prospects for this population become increasingly doubtful.
The placid Salish Sea waters where the orcas’ battle for survival is being played out may seem a long way from Alberta, where tar sands are mined—but they are inextricably linked by a pipeline carrying something called dilbit. It begins as a tarry, sludge-like form of petroleum known as bitumen that is extracted from sandstone ore in the Athabasca oil-sands region. Gasoline and other oil products are made from bitumen at refineries, but there are no refineries in Canada capable of handling it. So the bitumen is diluted with a concoction of highly volatile chemicals into a more fluid form called dilbit, which can be transported by pipeline and then by ship to refineries elsewhere. At least, that’s the plan in Vancouver. (Above: Living Oceans Society executive director Karen Wristen worries the Canadian government is not equipped to respond to a tar-sands oil spill off Canada’s Pacific coast)

Unlike the Keystone XL Pipeline—the more notorious project to transport dilbit from Alberta by pipeline straight to refineries in Texas, and the center of an ongoing environmental controversy in Washington, D.C.—the Vancouver plan does not cross American soil at all. Rather, the owners of the already-existing Trans Mountain Pipeline, which runs from Edmonton, Alberta, to Burnaby, just east of Vancouver, want to expand and upgrade it, increasing its capacity so that large quantities of dilbit can be transported from Alberta to Vancouver, then pumped into waiting ships and transported to various refineries in the United States and elsewhere.

It may surprise most people in the Northwest to learn that Vancouver has become an oil port. The change occurred in 2006 with very little fanfare, when Kinder Morgan—the Houston-based company that owns the Trans Mountain Pipeline—began regularly loading dilbit into ships at Westridge Marine Terminal in Vancouver, about five tankers per month. Up until then, the pipeline had almost solely carried petroleum products headed for use in Vancouver.

Kinder Morgan’s long-term expansion plans include almost tripling the capacity of the pipeline, which would lead to a massive increase in both the amount of dilbit flowing out of the terminal at Westridge and the number of ships carrying it. If the company’s plans are approved by the Cabinet of Canada (and if the likely legal challenges fail), Vancouver will see a leap from 60 crude-carrying ships a year to 420 ships annually.

All of these ships can only pass one way en route to the open sea: through Haro Strait, along the American border, and right through the summer hunting grounds of the Southern Resident orcas.  

And that is not the entire picture. Overall, the increase in oil-bearing ships represents only about 15 percent of the proposed overall increase in shipping through Haro Strait, including more container ships and coal-bearing ships.

Then there is the controversial proposal to turn Cherry Point, near Bellingham, into a major port for exporting coal brought there by train. The ships coming in and out of that port do not travel through Haro Strait, but rather through Rosario Strait, a narrower and even more convoluted path that also happens to be a regular part of the orcas’ circuit-like route.

All of which means—other risks aside—that the waters of the Salish Sea are going to be very, very noisy.
While many researchers believe a massive increase in ship noise poses a kind of existential threat to the Southern Residents insofar as it may interfere with their ability to find and eat salmon, it pales in comparison to the lethal potential of a possible oil spill in Haro Strait while the whales are present.

In Prince William Sound, for example, nearly a third of the resident orcas who were exposed to the oil spilled by the Exxon Valdez in 1989 wound up dying within the year. One pod of 35 transients was doomed to extinction by the event, but the Alaskan resident whales’ numbers were strong enough to eventually rebound from the losses, as they appear to be doing now.
The Southern Residents, however, would not be so fortunate if they lost a third of their population. “The effects would be devastating,” says Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research on San Juan Island. “It would depend, of course, on whether the whales were in the vicinity when the spill occurred.” (Left: An oil tanker on the north coast of B.C. If Kinder Morgan is permitted to expand its pipeline, the waters off Vancouver could see a leap from 60 crude-carrying ships a year to 420. Photo by Peter Baker)

While the fiercer weather that might precipitate a crash and lead to a spill would likely hit in winter, when the whales aren’t around as much, the impact would still linger. Balcomb adds, “Even then, the toxins would be in the ecosystem for a long, long time, and that would be the coup de grâce. And if they were present, it would pretty much doom whatever pods were in the vicinity.”

A spill from a tanker carrying tar-sands oil would be especially lethal. Dilbit does not behave like ordinary crude oil. The dilutants, which are highly toxic and extremely explosive, tend to separate very quickly from the bitumen, which means that the air surrounding the spill will be filled with a cloud of toxic and flammable gases. Any air-breathing mammals—including oil-response personnel, nearby residents and, of course, killer whales—in the vicinity who are exposed to those gases will almost certainly incur serious lung damage, if not an agonizing death.

Compounding the fears of a spill is the reality that government officials in the Northwest on both sides of the border are ill prepared for an oil spill if one were to occur—particularly one involving dilbit, for which the current oil-response units simply don’t have the equipment to properly respond. (Among its many dangerous characteristics, dilbit will sink below the water’s surface, where it is invisible to tracking and inaccessible to spill recovery technology. It may also sink to the bottom, when combined with organic materials, and form large, smothering mats or the sort of tar balls now being found in the Gulf of Mexico.)

“It’s always been a question, if there were a really serious spill out here, would the federal government be in any sense equipped to deal with the protection of critical resources,” says Karen Wristen, executive director of the Living Oceans Society, based in Sointula, B.C., an organization fighting to maintain a moratorium on oil tankers in B.C.’s north and central coast. “And the answer to that is no, they never were.”  

Making the picture especially gloomy is that the likelihood of a spill increases dramatically in the waters of the Salish Sea as the total number of ships starts to climb. One study, by a George Washington University professor who specializes in shipping-traffic risk assessment, found that if all of the proposed projects for increasing ship traffic through Haro and Rosario straits come to pass, the likelihood of a collision by the year 2025 increases by 89 percent. The possibility of “oil flow”—a spill—increases by more than 70 percent.

In other words, if all these plans are put into action, it likely is a matter of when, not if, there will be an oil spill in these waters.

Wristen fears the broad impact of the planned stream of oil-laden ships, especially given the likelihood of a spill. “It hugely increases the risk to the whales, and we are so completely unprepared to deal with it,” she says. “It would devastate the whole ecosystem. There’s so much to be lost in the Salish Sea.”

Washington state wildlife officials are aware of the possibility of an oil spill in the interim. Donald Noviello of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (DFW)says state officials have prepared plans to deal with the whales in the event of a spill emergency. Those plans include using underwater bells (oikomi pipes), seal bombs and low-flying helicopters to drive the whales away—although he acknowledges that none of these measures have been tested by DFW when whales or oil were present.

Kinder Morgan and Trans Mountain officials submitted their final proposal for the expansion in December, after which it will likely spend the better part of the next year being considered by the Canadian cabinet. The political pressure to approve the expansion will be intense, especially as the fight over the Keystone pipeline drags on and the pressure builds for a means to bring the tar-sands oil to market. While Canada’s federal government has been very vocal in support of pipeline development in the west, the opposition is also likely to be intense, especially in British Columbia, where First Nations communities and environmentalists are already up in arms, mostly about the risks of pipeline spills on the way to Vancouver.

For its part, the U.S. government in the form of NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service—which listed the Southern Residents as endangered in 2005, noting at the time that a catastrophic oil spill could doom them—says it is prepared to respond to such an emergency, but it is remaining mum on the issue of the prospect of increased vessel noise and spill risk from the new Canadian projects as well as the Bellingham coal port.

“We are monitoring all the plans for shipping through these waters, and will respond appropriately when the time comes,” said Lynne Barre of NOAA Fisheries’ Northwest Regional Office. “For now, we are coordinating with Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans, who leads the recovery effort across the border, and we will consult with them as these proposals go through the process.”

Pipeline and port officials insist that improvements in navigation and spill response will keep wildlife in the shipping lanes safe. But environmentalists are deeply skeptical.

“We’ve already got a lot of environmental problems that are slowly driving these whales to extinction,” says Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research, who has studied the Southern Residents for nearly 40 years. “I look at those 400 or so ships that they plan to run through here, and it’s just another 400 of the thousand cuts that the resident whales suffer. Eventually, they add up.”

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