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Trouble Could Be Brewing for B.C.'s Endangered Killer Whales

06/08/2015 06:08 EDT | Updated 06/08/2016 05:59 EDT
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Roberts Bank Terminal 2 latest on growing list of threats to killer whale recovery and survival

Two years ago, Ecojustice and our clients celebrated a landmark win for protection of B.C.'s iconic killer whales under the Species at Risk Act. And while there have been some recent signs that these populations may be on the long road to recovery, proposed projects like the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline expansion and now the Roberts Bank Terminal 2 expansion pose new threats to their survival.

Questions have arisen about how increased vessel traffic associated with these projects will impact killer whale populations. Even more questions have been raised around how those impacts will be mitigated, or reduced. Muddying the waters even further are the mixed messages Canadians are getting from Minister of Fisheries and Ocean Gail Shea and Minister of the Environment Leona Aglukkaq.

In April, Minister Aglukkaq announced that while Terminal 2's environment assessment will consider the environmental impacts of shipping traffic, these impacts will not factor into her decision about whether "the project is likely to cause significant adverse environment effects" nor will the shipping impacts be "subject to conditions to the proponent in any decision statement issued by the Minister." This suggests that marine shipping impacts will have zero influence on decisions around this project and that no measures will be taken to protect killer whales from these impacts.

And yet, Minister Shea appeared on CBC's Power and Politics last week and told host Evan Solomon that all impacts on killer whales will be considered and addressed, adding that no decision that threatens killer whale survival and recovery will be made.

"We also have to determine that the activity will not jeopardize the survival or the recovery of the species ... at the end of the day we have to protect that critical habitat," she said. "Killer whales have to be protected because they are protected under legislation."

Confused? So are we. That's why Ecojustice sent a letter, on behalf of the David Suzuki Foundation, Georgia Strait Alliance, Wilderness Committee and Raincoast Conservation Foundation, seeking clarification on this issue. We hope we hear back from someone soon, because it could mean the difference between recovery and collapse of the southern resident killer whale populations.

Here's what we do know: Some of the most important habitat for these endangered whales will be degraded and destroyed if Terminal 2 is built.

The project could see an additional 1,000 large ship transits go through Vancouver's already busy port area and shipping channels, which overlap with killer whale critical habitat, each year. Terminal 2 is also just one of many major projects, including proposed LNG plants and expanded coal and oil export facilities, that would contribute to increased vessel traffic through the whales' critical habitat. And more vessel traffic means more noise, more pollution, and likely, reduced prey availability -- three major threats to the whales continued existence.

When it comes to noise, experts believe that during times of heavy shipping upwards of 97 per cent of available communication space is lost. This is bad news for the whales who need this communication space to hunt, socialize, and ultimately survive. It also means that even a small increase in shipping noise could push endangered killer whale populations towards further decline and possible extinction.

It is extremely important that the environmental assessment of Terminal 2 fully consider how more shipping will affect the whales and their critical habitat. The law (that we went to court to uphold) is clear: Killer whale critical habitat -- including important biological features like salmon availability and a quiet marine environment -- is protected by Species at Risk Act. And we, our clients, and the Canadians public expect the federal government to live up to that promise.

This piece was written by Ecojustice staff lawyers Margot Venton and Morgan Blakley. As Canada's only national environmental law charity, Ecojustice is building the case for a better earth. Learn more at ecojustice.ca.

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