British Columbia

For environmentalists and Lower Mainland First Nations, 76 reasons to oppose Trans Mountain

Increased shipping caused by the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion may harm the endangered southern resident killer whales of the Salish Sea, and that's led to strong opposition. But how much of a threat is that extra shipping? And is it the biggest threat to the endangered whales?

One researcher says biggest risk to whales may not be oil tankers

A female southern resident killer whale breaches in the calm blue waters of the Salish Sea between Washington State and British Columbia, Canada. (Monika Wieland/Shutterstock)

There are no new protections for endangered southern resident killer whales in Tuesday's latest approval of the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project, say advocates, many of whom fear for the survival of the species.

"If the project goes forward as currently planned, it will further push the southern residents toward extinction," said Margot Venton, a lawyer with environmental law firm Ecojustice.

"That's what's on the table."

Last summer, the federal court of appeal struck down the proposed pipeline expansion project in part because the National Energy Board did not consider the impact that increased shipping from the project could have on the whales, which now number just 76 individuals in the wild, according to Orca Network.

The whales are protected by the federal Species At Risk Act, but their population has been in decline for years.

Noise from whale watching boats can interfere with killer whales' ability to hunt, navigate and communicate with each other. (Elaine Thompson/AP)

Vessel noise has been found to interfere with their ability to hunt, and ship strikes can seriously injure or kill them. Environmentalists fear increased oil tanker traffic from an expanded Trans Mountain project could make these problems worse.

Canada's fisheries minister says the federal government has acted to protect the whales, with a number of measures, including rules to reduce noise and traffic, but environmentalists and some First Nations are not convinced.

Those groups accuse the federal government of using half-measures to keep the species from disappearing forever.

How solid are protections?

After the project's approval was overturned by a judge 10 months ago, the NEB made 16 recommendations aimed at protecting marine life from shipping risks.

On Wednesday, Fisheries Minister Jonathan Wilkinson reiterated efforts to protect the whales: including moving shipping lanes away from the whales' habitat, declaring interim sanctuaries around foraging areas and bringing in a program to slow vessels in order to reduce noise.

Jonathan Wilkinson, Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard announced measures to protect killer whales in May. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

"If we find that we have not done enough, we are required to do more," Wilkinson told The Early Edition host Stephen Quinn. "We're committed to doing that."

The federal government said, in a statement, it is committed to fulfilling the NEB's 16 recommendations, but Venton pointed out they are not binding on the project.

The slowdown program, she added, is voluntary. Other protections require ongoing political commitment and could be rolled back.

"It appears there are still no mandatory measures to protect the killer whales from this project," Venton said.

Opposition

Chief Leah George-Wilson of Tsleil-Waututh First Nation said her nation is obligated to protect the southern resident killer whales.

"They are still here. We are still here," George-Wilson said as she announced the First Nation would appeal the approval. "The conditions don't take away Tsleil-Waututh's concerns."

Chief Leah George-Wilson of Tsleil-Waututh First Nation said the struggles of the southern resident killer whales in recent years is a warning that they need help. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Environmentalists, too, see the threat to the whales as too great.

Jay Ritchlin of the David Suzuki Foundation said it was disappointing the pipeline was approved after positive moves for the whales, such as limiting the distance whale watching boats can approach.

"They needed to be done just to address the existing threats," Ritchlin said of the moves. "Today we added the risk of more threats."

'Dangerous'

Andrew Trites, director of the University of British Columbia's Marine Mammal Research Unit, however, does not think the extra shipping activity from Trans Mountain exporting oil overseas is the biggest threat to whales.

"If people really wanted to reduce the threat of a ship strike or noise, they'd be focused on maybe reducing the number of [ferry] sailings going to Vancouver Island," Trites said.

UBC Professor Andrew Trites says if people are concerned about the effects of increased shipping on the whales, they should consider travelling by ferry less and getting fewer imported goods by ship. (Tristan Le Rudulier/CBC)

With files from Ethan Sawyer, Eric Rankin, Laura Sciarpelletti and CBC Radio One's The Early Edition

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