By Jodi Stark, Communications and Public Engagement Specialist
Last year, I became enamoured with a little story by Jackie "The Marine Detective" Hildering about a humpback whale living off Northern Vancouver Island she calls KC (Kelp Creature) — because he likes frolicking in kelp forests.
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This summer, a boat's propeller cut KC. Luckily, it was a small boat and a minor wound, so he survived. But the scar on his dorsal fin is a warning. What threats will huge tankers and container ships pose for whales and other marine mammals along B.C.'s coast?
British Columbians are rightfully worried about our Pacific coast. Strong tidal and ocean currents mean a major oil spill could devastate ecosystems fundamental to life and livelihood for coastal residents. But it's not just oil. KC's scar is only a hint of the environmental consequences large ships can have, even without spilling a drop of bitumen.
Collisions with giant tankers and container ships are a leading cause of whale deaths worldwide. You don't have to be a marine biologist to understand increased tanker traffic will kill and injure even more whales if the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway project and Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion are approved. And tankers plying our Pacific coast won't just be carrying oil from Alberta's tar sands. The B.C. government has big, big plans for liquefied natural gas (LNG), which will require big, big ships to carry it to Asian markets. Yet there has been little to no consideration of ship strikes on large marine mammals in the discussion of pipeline and tanker expansion.
The noise, Noise, NOISE!!!
Dolphins and whales use sound to navigate, reproduce, find food and communicate. Huge tankers can crank out a deafening 175 decibels (130 db is a loud rock concert), leaving marine mammals highly disoriented. Scientists believe the loss of echolocation makes whales vulnerable to strikes from large ships. Whales and tanker noise are like deer and headlights.
Increased noise levels, ship strikes, climate change and the risk of oil spills are reasons enough not to introduce tankers to B.C.'s coastal waters. But current marine traffic also requires closer supervision. Properly mapping critical marine mammal habitat and migration routes should be first steps towards creating sensible shipping corridors in Canada's Pacific.
The David Suzuki Foundation has long highlighted the benefits of marine use planning, which looks at the movements of whales, ship traffic and other activities, then develops strategies to minimize conflicting uses. These plans should be an essential first step to inform the location and feasibility of pipelines, LNG terminals, shipping lanes and volumes.
Please tell the shipping industry and Transport Canada that developing marine plans and protected areas is an essential step to determine if — and where — pipelines, LNG terminals and shipping lanes that would accommodate higher volumes should be located.
The Good News
This has been an exciting year for marine mammals on the B.C. Coast. There have been some rare sightings of Pacific Right whales, large pods of Pacific white-sided dolphins on the south coast and research by the B.C.-based Oceans Initiative has confirmed humpback populations along the northern coast of British Columbia have nearly doubled over the past eight years.
These populations have bounced back partly because years ago, people like you fought for a ban on whale hunting, against seemingly insurmountable interests. It's because of previous advocacy that we still have whales to protect. It's your turn now. If you are passionate the B.C. coast, please become a David Suzuki Foundation Ocean Keeper to help us protect the ocean we love.
KC was hit by the propeller from a smaller boat. This highlights the need for everyone out on the water — not just large tankers — to always follow "Be Whale Wise" Guidelines to reduce the impact of vessels on marine mammals.