British Columbia·Killers

Lessons from Alaska: How an oil spill decimated a once thriving orca population

A major oil spill in Prince William Sound 30 years ago had a devastating impact on the AB orca pod in Alaskan waters, and experts say action is needed now to ensure the southern resident killer whales in B.C. don't fall victim to a similar fate.

Expert says we can alter behaviour so southern resident killer whales don't suffer the same fate

The AB orca pod population in Alaska shrank in 1989 when an oil spill killed several whales. (Audun Rikardsen)

Thirty years ago, the tanker ship Exxon Valdez spilled thousands of metric tons of crude oil into Alaska's Prince William Sound, and the local killer whale population was literally swimming in the thick of it. 

The AB pod was a group of 35 orcas before the spill and afterwards it lost 14 whales in the space of two years. Three decades later, the population is still struggling to recover, as many of the whales who died were breeding matriarchs.

It is a situation opponents of the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, with its subsequent tanker traffic increase, fear could happen to the already struggling southern resident orcas in British Columbia.

Craig Matkin, marine biologist and executive director of the North Gulf Oceanic Society, said there is a lesson that can be learned from what happened in Alaska.

"The real reminder with what's happening with killer whales is that this is unnecessary," said Matkin. "We can see how we are impacting them and change our behaviour."

A recent report from Fisheries and Oceans Canada did not bode well for the southern residents. Threats to their survival include marine noise, boat traffic, lack of food sources and contaminants in the ocean. The report projects the local oras have a 26 per cent chance of extinction over the next 75 to 100 years.

In 1989, the Exxon Valdez oil tanker ran aground in Prince William Sound, Alaska, spilling over 40 million litres of oil, creating a slick more than 20 kilometres wide, in a wilderness area immensely rich in marine life. (AP file photo)

Making changes

But the federal government has introduced measures to help B.C.'s resident whales.

In 2018, the government announced a $1.5 billion Oceans Protection Plan that mandates lower vessel speeds and beefs up funding for spill response action. Fisheries and Oceans Canada classifies a catastrophic oil spill as a low probability. 

Federal Fisheries Minister Jonathan Wilkinson said the government is taking "significant measures" informed by environmental organizations, the shipping and fishing industry and First Nations to ensure that the probability of a spill "shrinks and shrinks."

Matkin offers words of encouragement three decades after the AB pod was decimated by human activity:

"We can alter our behaviours and hopefully, collectively, we can look at these animals and identify with them," said Matkin. "I hope we can turn the southern resident situation around."

Read more stories about southern resident killer whales.


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With files from Sterling Eyford

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