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Canada’s Latest Pipeline Could Drive Endangered Killer Whales to Extinction

Conservationists are mobilizing against the Kinder Morgan pipeline.

by Kate Lunau
Nov 30 2016, 9:03pm

Southern Resident Killer Whale mother and calf. Image: NOAA's National Ocean Service/Flickr

The killer whales that ply coastal waters near BC and Washington State are iconic to the area. Yet the newly approved Kinder Morgan pipeline threatens to drive this already-endangered population to extinction, conservationists warned on Wednesday, as Kinder Morgan Canada president Ian Anderson praised Justin Trudeau's government for its "courage and determination" in making the controversial project a reality.

The $6.8 billion Trans Mountain expansion, which will carry oil products from Alberta to the BC coast, was one of two pipeline projects that got officially green-lighted in Canada on Tuesday: the other, Enbridge's Line 3 replacement, will replace existing pipeline from Alberta to Manitoba. (A third proposed pipeline, Enbridge's Northern Gateway, which has been mired in controversy and legal disputes, was rejected.)

There are only about 80 Southern Resident Killer Whales left, according to the nonprofit Center for Whale Research (CWR) in Washington State, which performs a yearly census on behalf of the US government. These animals are under tremendous pressure due to dwindling food supplies, pollution, and marine traffic. Environmentalists and biologists say the pipeline could drive them to the brink.

Even if there isn't an oil spill, the increase in marine traffic and accompanying noise that's expected to come as a result of the pipeline will make it harder for the whales to hunt for food, which they do using echolocation. Southern Residents, which feed exclusively on salmon, are already struggling with dwindling food supplies, because of overfishing and other factors.

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To understand the predicament of these animals, it's important to know that there are different populations of killer whales worldwide, including off the BC coast. Genetic research has shown that populations are "incredibly distinct," Deborah Giles, research director and project manager at the CWR, told me over the phone.

Killer whales are not only genetically distinct; they're culturally distinct from other populations, too. For example, the Southern Residents eat only salmon. Mammal-eating killer whales, which represent another group, will come into the same waters, "but they don't interbreed or intermingle" with Southern Residents, she said.

These animals are important figures to indigenous cultures on the Pacific coast. And they're symbolic of the lower mainland. "When one of these whales dies, it's front-page news in Vancouver, Victoria, Seattle," as Maclean's reported.

They also bring in plenty of tourism dollars. "In 2014, 400,000 people went out on whale watching boats," just for the hopes of seeing one of these 80-odd whales, Giles said. "That's at least $100 per head."

Both Kinder Morgan and the Canadian government are aware of potential risks to the Southern Residents, and say they will be mitigated as much as possible—the federal government has said that killer whale recovery is part of its recently announced $1.5 billion marine protection plan—but environmentalists worry that this will be too little, too late, and that a pipeline will take recovery off the table.

Motherboard reached out to Environment and Climate Change Canada, which directed the request to Fisheries and Oceans Canada. The department did not respond by deadline.

The approval "seems so short-sighted, when the potential for loss is so massive," Giles told me. Losing an entire population of killer whales would be disastrous, she continued. "Not only will animals and plants be impacted. It's as if we humans don't realize we're actually in it, too."

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