Federal government announces new monitoring of vessel noise impacts on endangered whales

The federal government says it will monitor underwater ship noise in British Columbia's Salish Sea to help develop measures to support the recovery of endangered southern resident killer whales.

$1.6M project is part of a previously announced $167.4M Whales Initiative

Transport Canada will deploy an underwater hydrophone, or listening device, at Boundary Pass in the Salish Sea, to collect individual vessel and mammal noise profiles to see how that noise impacts the southern resident killer whale. (Tasli Shaw/Steveston Seabreeze Adventures)

The federal government says it will monitor underwater ship noise in British Columbia's Salish Sea to help develop measures to support the recovery of endangered southern resident killer whales.

Terry Beech, parliamentary secretary to the transportation minister, announced the measures Monday as his government is set to face new scrutiny of the impacts of the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion on the threatened species.

"The southern resident killer whale is a vital part of our local marine ecosystem. The survival of this iconic species is a priority of our government and indeed a priority for all Canadians," he said.

A court ruling found the National Energy Board failed to assess the Trans Mountain project's effects on the marine environment and the government asked the board to reconsider that part of the review by Feb. 22.

The government-owned project would increase tankers in Burrard Inlet seven-fold, from five to 34 a month, and whale experts argue there is already too much traffic for the 74-member southern resident population to survive.

Beech said Transport Canada will work with the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority's Enhancing Cetacean Habitat and Observation (ECHO) program, which is looking at ways to reduce underwater noise in key areas for the whales.

It will deploy an underwater hydrophone, or listening device, at Boundary Pass in the Salish Sea, to collect individual vessel and mammal noise profiles, he said.

The department will also carry out a four-year project with support from the National Research Council of Canada to better predict propeller noise and hull vibration of a vessel.

Altering normal behaviour

Beech said the new measures, totalling $1.6 million, are part of a previously announced $167.4-million Whales Initiative aimed at improving prey availability and reducing disturbance of the whales.

"Do I think that these particular measures that are being taken on behalf of our government are going to help? Absolutely," Beech said.

"Not just with the one (additional) tanker a day if the Trans Mountain project goes ahead, but with the increased shipping traffic that we fully expect to happen as our economy continues to grow."

Whales use sound to find their food, mate, communicate and avoid danger. Vessels can impact whales by altering their normal behaviour and movement, said Carrie Brown, director of environmental programs at Vancouver Fraser Port Authority.

'At the brink of extinction'

The ECHO program has been underway since 2014 and Transport Canada's involvement will help it gain a better understanding of commercial vessel noise, she said.

The program has recently co-ordinated voluntary initiatives to slow deep-sea vessels, making them quieter in Haro Strait, and to shift them away from whale foraging areas in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, she added.

"The more we learn from the work of the ECHO program, the better able we will be to inform and support the development of future threat reduction initiatives," she said.

Jay Ritchlin, director-general for Western Canada at the David Suzuki Foundation, said new research is great but there needs to be an urgent and mandatory reduction in shipping traffic and noise.

"These whales are at the brink of extinction," he said.

The foundation is among six environmental groups asking the Federal Court to force the government to issue an emergency order to protect southern resident killer whales under the Species at Risk Act.

Canada's environment commissioner Julie Gelfand recently conducted an audit that concluded the government failed to act to protect some of its most at-risk whales until they were already in peril.

Southern residents were listed as endangered in 2003 but the plan to help them recover wasn't finished until 2017, Gelfand found.