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Orcas and The Big Spill

  • Written by Capt, Hobbes Buchanan, San Juan Island Whale & Wildlife Tours, and Michael Harris, Puget Sound Express Whale Watching Seattle/Edmonds

To whale watchers in Washington State and British Columbia, the recent oil spill in Vancouver’s English Bay was a wake-up call.

While a container ship bled bunker fuel into the bay, three hours passed before Canadian Coast Guard vessels began to lay boom and contain the spill. Over 12 hours passed before anyone bothered to notify the City of Vancouver.

Had this happened in the San Juan Islands, we could’ve very well lost a totem species.

As it considered listing the Southern Resident Community of orcas under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, NOAA Fisheries’ Biological Review Team identified the potential of a catastrophic oil spill in the Salish Sea as the number one most immediate threat to the long-term survival of the population. The agency has spent about $16 million USD in the last decade studying the effects of Chinook salmon depletion and bioaccumulative toxins, the two primary causes for the decline of the Southern Residents.

Considering the urgency in which NOAA attributed to the threat of an oil spill to this endangered population, one would think at least an equal amount of time, energy and taxpayer dollars have been directed toward effective protocols on prevention, containment and clean-up.

What have we done to make sure we protect our resident orcas from being wiped out by an oil spill? Where’s the plan to marshal the citizen and government resources to save our whales?

It hasn’t surfaced.

The feds will disagree and tout a number of seemingly impressive efforts they’ve made on this front, but there’s one thing very clear to members of the Pacific Whale Watch Association (PWWA), which represents 29 operators in BC and Washington – no one’s talked to us.

If an accident happens or if a ship becomes disabled and is in danger of running aground, and sensitive wildlife are in danger of exposure, whale watch boats will invariably be the first line of defense. We will be the first responders. It’s a good thing we’re out there.

PWWA crews are emergency trained and have been on hand to respond to countless incidents over recent years. On June 23rd of last year, Five Star Whale Watching out of Victoria rescued a man who had fallen out of his kayak south of Trial Island, BC. He had been in the water for about 15 minutes and was hypothermic. They likely saved his life. Two weeks earlier, a PWWA boat saved a couple and a dog from a 53-foot pleasure boat engulfed in flames near Galiano Island.

And in June of 2013, local whale watch boats were involved in two dramatic rescues. A crew from Maya’s Westside Whale Charters on San Juan Island (now Maya’s Legacy Whale Watching) plucked two kayakers from the frigid waters of Haro Strait, one of them also suffering from life-threatening hypothermia. Two days later, a boat operated by BC-based Prince of Whales Whale Watching rescued a family from another burning boat in the Strait of Georgia.

We’re not just watching whales and wildlife out there, we’re watching out for everyone.

One bad decision, one wrong turn, one reef unseen can result in a catastrophic spill that could prove to be the death knell for a beloved population of endangered orcas that many hope have turned a corner, with four newborns in the last three months. The Southern Residents are in no way out of the woods, but we can and need to do a lot more to keep them out of harm’s way.

PWWA operators have recently reached out to the U.S. Department of Ecology to be listed as "vessels of opportunity" and to seek training in response activities, to augment the training many of our members already have. Whale watch boats need to be fully engaged and effectively authorized and deputized to assist vessels in distress, and if a spill happens to move quickly to source and deploy booms and other gear to contain it and keep it away from whales.

When the oil tanker Jessica ran aground in, of all places, the Galápagos Islands in 2001, spilling thousands of gallons of bunker fuel into one of the most pristine natural places on Earth, the only thing that prevented that accident from turning into a full-fledged catastrophe was the fast response from the ecotourism fleet and local fishermen, all of whom were trained and authorized to lay booms quickly and mitigate impacts to wildlife. Conversely, the inexplicably slow response to the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989 resulted in oil drifting hundreds of miles from Bligh Reef and decimating wildlife wherever it hit – including the local population of orcas, which have never recovered. Charles Darwin never could have imagined oil spills in his theory on natural selection, but the Jessica proved one thing – when things go wrong on the water, an engaged and empowered citizenry can be critical to the survival of marine species. We need a more evolved strategy.

The feds in BC claim to have recovered about 80% of the sticky, highly toxic bunker fuel that gushed into English Bay. Chances are, it was a lot less than that. The fact is, there’s no good way to recover spilled oil. The best way to do it is to make sure it never happens in the first place.

The good news is that in Washington State legislators in Olympia have seemingly put aside partisan dysfunction and passed two bills on oil transportation safety – one a House bill passed with bipartisan support, the other a Senate bill passed on party lines. The better elements of both need to become law in the State, and the “best achievable protection” codified that addresses rising threats from train derailments, pipeline spills and ship accidents, and keeps new types of particularly challenging oil to clean up from traveling over our waterways.

The combined vessel traffic now transiting ports in Washington and British Columbia make the Strait of Juan de Fuca the second busiest waterway in North America. Executives from the disgraced former corporation Enron now own the Kinder Morgan pipeline that connects the vast Alberta tar sand reserves with a port near Vancouver. Those once known as “the smartest guys in the room” are now seeking permits from Canada’s National Energy Board to triple the capacity of the pipeline, which could result in a sevenfold increase in tanker traffic transiting through the San Juan Islands and Orca Country – from one tanker a week to one each day.

Moreover, when it comes to recovery efforts, Tar Sands oil is a sticky wicket. In order to make this sludgy mess flow into pipelines, rail cars and tankers, it has to be mixed with a highly volatile and explosive diluent mixture known as dilbit. When Tar Sands oil is spilled, the evaporation of these dilbit vapors poses serious health risks to responders, while what’s left quickly sinks into the water. And there it remains, forever.

The Enron boys may be the smartest guys in the room, but multiplying by seven times tanker traffic carrying toxic, unrecoverable oil through one of the most navigationally challenging and wildlife-rich waters in North America is a very dumb proposition, indeed.

Regardless of what happens with the Kinder Morgan Pipeline, the English Bay spill shows us that we clearly need a smarter, more comprehensive transboundary strategy for dealing with these emerging threats. Short of a world with no oil, we’ve simply got to make better use of the resources we have at hand to prevent oil spills from happening, and if they do, make sure they aren’t worse than they need to be. We need to right this ship.

Much is at stake. All of the work conservationists and whale watchers are doing now to rebuild salmon runs and recover this endangered population of resident orcas could be lost in an instant. And with no whales, we have no whale watching and the $100 million-plus economic impact the industry has on the region. We’ll also lose something that’s very hard to attribute a dollar figure to – what these orcas mean to the soul of the Pacific Northwest.

Whale watch operators are standing by to help.