Study begins in the Salish Sea as time runs out for whales

Voluntary study started this week to gauge slower vessel speeds’ impact on whales

  • Aug. 9, 2017 6:00 a.m.

Tim Collins / News staff

Consider for a moment a world in which every man, woman and child is forced to live in a perpetual, heavy fog. Their vision is severely limited, and, at times, the fog is so heavy as to create a virtual blindfold.

It’s precisely the kind of world that mankind has created for the 78 remaining southern resident killer whales (and other cetaceans) residing in the waters off Vancouver Island. The whales are an endangered species and have shown no sign of rebounding, despite some limited steps to safeguard their existence.

Marine mammals live in an acoustic-dominant world in which they use sound as the primary means of “seeing” their environment. It’s also how they feed, navigate, communicate and interact in what has long been known to be a critically important social structure.

Humans use their eyes; on the most part, whales and other cetaceans use their hearing.

Marine traffic (the ships engines and propellers) produce low frequency sounds that travel for very long distances, reverberating through the ocean and masking cetacean communication and the whale’s ability to locate food sources.

In response to this situation, the Port of Vancouver, with the cooperation of 52 marine shipping organizations , along with Washington State Ferries, have undertaken a voluntary study to focus on the relationship between slower vessel speeds, underwater noise levels and the effects that noise has on killer whales.

The study will take place between August 7 and October 6 and will involve participating vessels reducing their speed to 11 knots through the Haro Strait ( located between the Saanich Peninsula and San Juan Island). It’s an important summer feeding area for the resident killer whale population and the study will determine what, if any, effect will result from the slower speed.

The ships will navigate over underwater listening stations where hydrophones will monitor ambient and vessel noise as well as the presence of whales.

According to Krista Trounce, the project’s manager, the data generated by the study will be important for decision making around measures to address vessel noise.

“This is one of many studies we are doing, all in the hopes of better understanding the issues surrounding the harm being done to marine life by vessel traffic. We have also made some changes at the port of Vancouver where we charge lower harbour fees for quieter vessels,” said Trounce.

The port authority’s project, while unrelated, is being launched at the same time as environmental groups are challenging the federal government to live up to a promise made by Transport Minister Marc Garneau for Canada to work with the United States to develop a joint mitigation approach to deal with the issue of marine traffic and the harm it does to whales on the west coast.

Garneau’s promise came in anticipation of the projected 600 per cent jump in tanker traffic that will result from the controversial expansion Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline.

Misty MacDuffee, a biologist with the Raincoast Conservation Foundation has gone on record as being incredulous about the promised mitigation of noise. She has said that, regardless of oil spills or whale strikes (ships hitting whales) the risk of extinction of the species will increase 25 per cent, simply because of the noise of the tankers.

In 2016, seven killer whales died in the waters off Vancouver Island, leaving a remaining population of 78. One of the deaths resulted from being struck by a ship, two others resulted from starvation, possibly as a result of boat noise masking potential food sources.

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