If you want to see the makings of an environmental train wreck, just hop a ferry from Anacortes, Washington, a couple of hours north of Seattle. There among the beautiful San Juan Islands, one of the world’s most iconic whale populations, the southern resident orcas, is struggling to survive. A lack of food caused by our damming of rivers and depletion of salmon stocks has made it hard for the orcas to recruit new calves, and we’ve made their foraging still more difficult by flooding their waters with noise. The orcas have dwindled now to 78 individual whales, the lowest number seen in three decades, and many believe they’re on the verge of an extinction spiral.
You would think that the plight of a beloved and endangered species would give some pause to development. Last year, however, the Canadian government of Justin Trudeau approved a major pipeline expansion that would seriously degrade the transboundary waters of the Pacific Northwest, where the orcas live.
There is no question that the expansion, proposed by the Houston-based Kinder Morgan corporation, would make the whales’ situation even more precarious than it is now. If built, the new pipeline would carry as much as 600,000 barrels of tar sands each day from Alberta to greater Vancouver; and to transport that oil, about 400 of some of the larger tankers on the planet would have to pass each year through the straits of coastal Washington and British Columbia. All that tanker traffic would expose the whales, and the rest of the Salish Sea ecosystem, to the threat of a catastrophic spill of diluted bitumen, which is near impossible to clean up.
But even if perfect safety were assured, the noise produced by those massive ships would still exact a serious toll on the orcas. Noise alters their calls, masks their echolocation signals, shrinks the space in which they can communicate, and reduces the time they spend foraging—all of which undermines their already diminished opportunities to feed.
To its credit, the Canadian government has recognized the significant problem that shipping noise poses for the whales and, having approved Kinder Morgan, has since promised a plan, to be released as early as this summer, to reduce human noise in the Salish Sea. But the substance of that plan—what targets will apply, what measures the government will undertake—remains unclear.
Today twenty U.S. and Canadian orca and noise experts from institutions as diverse as Cornell University, the University of Victoria, and the Vancouver Aquarium sent a letter to Prime Minister Trudeau that sets the stakes for the Canadian plan.
The clear point of the letter is to call for more than words. “Along with increasing food availability and minimizing the risk of contaminants,” the experts write, “reducing acoustic disturbance from large vessels and other noise sources is essential to the recovery of the [orca] population.” And so they urge the Prime Minister to produce a plan with hard, science-based targets, committed funding, tangible noise-reduction measures, and a timetable for implementation—using every means available, including regulation, to achieve its aims. “It is essential,” they say, “that any new developments be consistent with [the] broader goals” of recovering the population and substantially quieting its habitat.
When it comes to an endangered species like the southern resident orca, business as usual cannot suffice. Prime Minister Trudeau spent some of his formative years in British Columbia, and I have no doubt he cares personally about the survival of the whales. To be in any way meaningful, however, the plan that his ministers are developing must meet the fundamental standards set forth in today’s letter from the experts. And if new developments like Kinder Morgan make that difficult, presumably they should not proceed.