By JUSTINE HUNTER
Friday, September 14, 2018
VICTORIA -- In the waters between British Columbia and Washington State, a desperate rescue operation is under way. Biologists, veterinarians and whale researchers from more than one dozen agencies on both sides of the border have collaborated in an extraordinary attempt to save a single whale.
Scarlet, or J50, is a severely emaciated three-year-old female from the J pod, part of the critically endangered population of southern resident killer whales.
Researchers have been following the struggle of the J pod all summer, watching as one mother, J35, carried her dead newborn calf for at least 17 days in an apparent display of grief.
Scarlet was last spotted on Sept. 7, trailing well behind the rest of her pod as they headed through the Strait of Juan de Fuca toward the San Juan Islands.
An aerial photo captured by a drone - hovering far above to avoid stressing the whales - showed her emaciated frame has developed what's known as a "peanut head" - a depression at the base of her skull caused by lack of body fat. Few whales have survived this state of starvation, and on Wednesday, fisheries officials from Canada and the United States said they have exhausted their options and are preparing to capture her in the hopes of rehabilitating her and returning her to the wild. But by Thursday, hopes for even a chance to rescue Scarlet had dimmed. Her pod has been spotted, but she was nowhere in sight.
Late Thursday, one scientist went so far as to declare her dead.
Scarlet's plight is now entangled in the future of the Trans Mountain pipeline project. The proposed expansion of the pipeline between the Alberta oil sands and the B.C. coast would nearly triple the system's capacity from its current flow of 300,000 barrels a day. But the risk posed by the resulting increase in oil tanker traffic to this fragile whale population led the Federal Court of Appeal to put the project in limbo. In its unanimous Aug. 30 decision, the court effectively dismissed the promise of the federal government that it can get Alberta oil to tidewater without jeopardizing the marine environment.
With just 75 surviving members, the southern resident killer whale population has "crossed a threshold where any additional adverse environmental effects would be considered significant," the court said. The increased marine traffic that the pipeline would feed presents a serious threat to these endangered whales, the court found. But they are already in jeopardy: The Trans Mountain expansion project is regarded by whale researchers as a potential tipping point, an added pressure that the whales could not survive.
The stress from existing vessel traffic and pollution, and the dwindling number of chinook salmon that are Scarlet's species' key source of food, mean that the orcas' odds of survival are poor. Acoustic noise that makes it hard for the killer whales to hunt is also part of the problem.
But the risk of an oil spill from greater tanker traffic is another danger altogether.
THE OIL THREAT Every year, an estimated 1,300 oil tankers, chemical carriers, articulated tug barges and oil barges travel east and west through the Strait of Juan de Fuca, feeding Washington State's refineries and carrying exports from Burnaby's Trans Mountain marine oil terminal. On the water, the best figures for Canadian oil transport come from the Western Canada Marine Corp., showing roughly seven billion litres of oil unloaded or loaded at Canadian ports on the West Coast in 2017.
Washington State tracks the movement of crude oil by rail, pipeline and sea, and reports every three months, including details of spills. The most recent report shows that over the past year, almost 16 billion litres were shipped in and out of Puget Sound's waters.
But those cargos are just part of the picture.
According to a Washington State risk assessment study of marine oil spills in the region in 2017, tens of thousands of large commercial ships travel every year to and from Canadian and U.S. ports through the Salish Sea, the network of coastal water around British Columbia and
Washington that includes the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the Strait of Georgia and Puget Sound.
That's in addition to all the fishing and recreational vessels, tugs and barges, and passenger ferries.
"Even though this area has not experienced major oil spills in the past 20 years or so, the presence of tankers in an everchanging vessel traffic mix places the area at risk for large oil spills," the study warned.
Rene van Dorp, a professor of engineering management at George Washington University in Washington D.C., is one of the lead authors of the risk assessment report. He marvels at what people are missing in the heated debate over the Trans Mountain expansion.
Based on current levels of traffic, his research found, there isn't enough protection from oil spills in the Salish Sea. He pointed to an incident in 1991, when the Japanese fishing vessel Tenyo Maru and Chinese freighter Tuo Hai collided in Canadian waters near Neah Bay, Wash. The fishing boat sank, leaking an estimated 1.7 million litres of fuel oil, diesel and lube oil.
Beaches were fouled with oil from Vancouver Island to northern Oregon. The Washington State legislature demanded action - calling for an emergency rescue tug to be permanently stationed at Neah Bay, at the mouth of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, to address the gaps that were evident in that mishap. Today, it remains the sole emergency towing vessel stationed in the Salish Sea, and Prof. Dorp says more resources are needed to reduce the risks that exist today.
(Canada, as part of the Oceans Protections Plan, is promising two new emergency towing vessels on B.C.'s coast, but neither is intended to be based in the Salish Sea.)
In addition to the present risks, Prof. Dorp's study looked at different development scenarios. The completion of the Trans Mountain pipeline would add an estimated 348 tankers each year to the current traffic. And a collection of terminal projects proposed for Washington State could add 32 tankers, 197 articulated tug barges plus three bulk carriers each year.
Together, those two streams of development would result in a significant increase in the number of oil tankers and articulated tug barges in the region. This increased traffic would have to be met with sufficient new resources to reduce the chances of a spill and to respond if there is one, he said. But he noted that no government can promise to eliminate risk.
"People in Canada should be concerned about developments in the U.S., and people in the U.S.
should be concerned about developments in Canada," he said in an interview.
PROTECTION MEASURES Veterinarian Joe Gaydos is part of the scientific team that has been working to track, treat and feed Scarlet in recent weeks. He was the last wildlife vet to see her alive.
Aquarium staff with expertise in treating whales have teamed up with marine biologists, fisheries officials and university experts to improvise a plan to treat her for parasites and feed her live salmon. The extraordinary effort is a testament to her value to the species as a female with breeding potential.
When he caught up with her on Sept. 7, Dr. Gaydos, who heads the SeaDoc Society at the University of California-Davis, was shocked by how thin Scarlet was, but she was still managing to keep up with her brother despite her wasted condition.
"She was the thinnest killer whale I have ever seen," he told reporters Wednesday.
"She has captured our hearts, but I don't want to give you false hope," he added. "We don't think she has long."
Canada moved to protect the southern resident killer whales under the Species at Risk Act 15 years ago, but the population has continued to decline. As part of the decision to proceed with the Trans Mountain expansion, the Trudeau government promised a $1.5-billion Ocean Protections Plan as well as other measures to protect killer whales off B.C.'s coast.
The Federal Court of Appeal noted those efforts but dismissed them as rudimentary: "These inchoate initiatives, while laudable and to be encouraged, are by themselves insufficient to overcome the material deficiencies in the [NEB] report," the judgment states.
The appeal court judges concluded the federal approval for the project was based on flawed advice from the National Energy Board, because the NEB considered the impact of oil tanker traffic from the project to be outside the scope of its review. By leaving the impact of marine traffic out of the scope, the NEB was able to recommend to cabinet that the project would not likely cause significant adverse environmental effects.
Yet the NEB review had found that Trans Mountain's projected increase in oil tanker traffic through the Salish Sea is likely to result in significant adverse effects to the southern resident killer whales.
Jonathan Wilkinson, federal Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard, said both Canada and the United States have stepped up their efforts to protect this population, and he believes the NEB would - if his government sends the matter back for review - be satisfied by the protection measures in its Whale Initiative.
"What the NEB is going to find if it looks at the issue of the killer whales and the impacts of shipping, is that the work that would have been required, had it been scoped in, has already been done," he said in an interview.
Canada has reduced the chinook salmon fishery, encouraged vessel slowdowns in the whales' foraging grounds and worked to reduce contaminants with new wastewater treatment plants.
"Clearly we have to do better than we have," he added. "We have started to move. ... Ultimately there will be measures to benefit the whales."
Alberta Premier Rachel Notley, who wants the pipeline expansion built to get her province's oil to new offshore markets, is demanding Ottawa legislate a solution to avoid a new hearing process to address the deficiencies identified by the Federal Court of Appeal.
AN ALL-OUT SCRAMBLE Those working to save Scarlet and her species see a different need for urgent action.
The Salish Sea is already a busy marine highway, and both B.C.
and Washington State expect to see increases in shipping traffic, even if the pipeline expansion project fails.
The Department of Fisheries and Oceans' recovery strategy for the whales says that vessel noise is "a threat to the acoustic integrity of Southern resident killer whale critical habitat, and that physical and acoustic disturbance from human activities may be key factors causing depletion or preventing recovery of resident killer whale populations."
Chinook stock have been in decline since 1984, and despite measures on both sides of the border to reduce fishing and to restore stocks, the numbers have steadily decreased.
Additionally, orcas are vulnerable to pollutants from contaminated prey, and high concentrations of long-banned chemicals have been found in their bodies.
Christianne Wilhelmson is executive director of the Georgia Strait Alliance, one of the organizations that sought to stop the Trans Mountain project through the courts because of the threat to the whales.
She said the Canadian government has been dragging its heels for 15 years to uphold the Species at Risk Act - which requires protecting the whales' habitat - resulting in an all-out scramble to save one whale.
"We have been waiting 15 years for really radical change to protect this species, and we are now at the point where we are desperately trying to save one individual because each individual that is left of the 75 is so deeply important to the survival of the species," she said.
"It's a sad tale." Report from The Associated Press
An oil tanker sits idle off the coast of Vancouver Island near Victoria last month. Figures for Canadian oil transport from the Western Canada Marine Corp. show that roughly seven billion litres of oil were unloaded or loaded at Canadian ports on the West Coast in 2017.
CHAD HIPOLITO/THE CANADIAN PRESS
SOURCE: GOVERNMENT OF CANADA; CENTRE FOR WHALE RESEARCH; EVOTIS.ORG; NOAA; KINDER MORGAN; QGIS
Killer whale J50 and her mother, J16, swim near Vancouver Island on Aug. 7. Researchers have been keeping an eye on J50, also known as Scarlet, all summer.
BRIAN GISBORNE/FISHERIES AND OCEANS CANADA VIA AP
SOURCE: GOVERNMENT OF CANADA; CENTRE FOR WHALE RESEARCH
SOURCE: PORT OF VANCOUVER
JOHN SOPINSKI/THE GLOBE AND MAIL