Simple Answers to Complex Problems

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In today’s political environment we are blessed with leaders who are able to resolve some of the most complicated problems with simple ways out. The expansion of the Trans-Mountain pipeline is a case in point: kill the expansion, save the whales.

The first question is are the whales facing a problem? Fisheries and Oceans Canada reports the “Southern Resident Killer Whale population [that is the population affected by the expansion] has fluctuated between 70 and 99 individuals since 1976, and consisted of 76 members in 2017. Because of their declining population size and small number they are currently facing imminent threats to their survival and recovery.” [1] NOAA Fisheries has estimated the historical number of whales in this population at about 140 [2], so the current state represents nearly a 50% decline, which seems significant.

The second question is what is the cause of their decline?

The greatest threats to Resident Killer Whales are reduction in prey availability, contaminants, and acoustic and physical disturbance; ship strikes have also been recently identified as a threat.  Exposure to toxic spills, interactions with fisheries and aquaculture, and climate change are other human-related threats that may negatively impact the Southern Resident Killer Whale population.

Natural factors may also impact the survival of these whales. These include: diseases, narrow prey selection, complex social structure, late sexual maturity and low birth rate, inbreeding, and mass stranding or natural entrapment.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada

“Prey availability” refers specifically to salmon, which makes up about 97% of the whales’ diet, that has suffered significant declines as well [3]. Washington State has taken action to increase the stocks by removing dams along rivers feeding into the whales’ habitat and expanding fish hatcheries [4]. Contaminants, such as raw sewage from Victoria, have impact, as well as the noise of existing ship traffic. Having vessels slow to 11 knots has reduced noise significantly, by 6 to 11 decibels [3].

Two points might be drawn. First, the decline in the whale population pre-exists expansion. Second, steps underway offer hope to address some of these problems, at least in part.

Is this increase in traffic material with respect to the survival of the whales? This is unclear, however, implementing the expansion could make the things worse. As noted by the Globe and Mail “The Trans Mountain project and expanded capacity would mean a seven-fold increase in the number of oil tankers coming and going.” [5] While this appears dramatic, the increase in absolute numbers is from 4 to 28 vessels per month, within an overall traffic pattern of 250 vessels per month.

Assuming the goal is to protect the whales, two questions remain:

  1. Can solutions currently being put in place resolve the challenges facing the Killer Whale population?
  2. Is traffic reduction necessary, and if so which should be cut?

Given that the decline in the whale population is independent of expansion, steps currently in place, and/or those considered, need to continue.

The answer to the second question is in part contingent on the success of the first. But let us assume that at minimum traffic volumes need to be stabilized at current levels. Allowing tanker traffic implies offsetting this increase in traffic with reductions elsewhere. For example, statistics from the Port of Vancouver report cruise ships account for 240 vessels per year in 2017 [5], which is a reasonably close offset to the 336 vessels per year that would be added by the Trans-Mountain Expansion.

Oil exports offer material economic benefits, so it might make more sense to measure the risk-reward of tanker traffic against other traffic, cutting that of lesser quality until balance is achieved.


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