AE.org - website of the Acoustic Ecology Institute
newsCommunityResourcesSoundscapesAbout UsJoin Us
aeinews Home

Court adds new hurdles for BC oil sands pipeline as separate lawsuit calls for emergency orca protections

Ocean, shipping No Comments »

Over the past decade, plans for a big expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline in British Columbia have garnered pushback from ocean advocates. In late 2016, the plan gained its final approval from the Canadian government (see AEI coverage), but in late August, a Federal Appeals Court overturned that approval, citing the government’s failure to assess the effects of increased shipping on the dwindling orca population and shortcomings in consultations with First Nations.

Chief Bob Chamberlin, vice president of the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs, called the ruling “a major win with impacts that will be felt across the country….Our wild salmon and the orcas that they support are critically under threat. The increased tanker traffic that the … project proposes is entirely unacceptable.”

However, Jonathan Wilkinson, the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans, remains confident that the court’s concerns can be addressed.  While acknowledging that the government is still being guided by the courts about what level of consultation with First Nations is required, he was confident that the concerns about orca populations have been addressed by the government’s “very robust” Whales Action Plan, which includes limits on the chinook salmon fishery, ship-slowing measures, and moving shipping lanes somewhat further away from key orca feeding areas, saying that “the work the court was looking for has already been done.”

Wilkinson stresses that the increased tanker traffic—350 tankers per year, or 700 transits—is a modest addition to the 3500 other large vessels (container ships and ferries) that ply the waters of this region; he notes that “If we are going to recover the southern resident killer whale, we need to take action that will mitigate noise from all of those sources, not simply six or seven tankers coming out of the terminal every week.”

Still, “they have a lot of work to do now to see if there are ways to lessen or avoid those impacts under the Species at Risk Act,” said Misty Macduffee, a biologist with the Rainforest Conservation Foundation. “The Salish Sea is already too noisy for killer whales, so any traffic you add to it makes a bad situation worse.”

Given the precarious state of the local resident population, you can be sure that government regulators will have their feet held to the fire as this longtime controversy continues.  The government has not yet announced whether it will appeal the recent ruling to the Supreme Court, or send the concerns back to the National Energy Board to address the shortcomings highlighted by the Appeals Court.

Indeed, less than a week after the Appeals Court decision, and on the very same day, the government proposed an expansion of orca critical habitat, while a consortium of environmental groups filed suit in an attempt to force the government to issue emergency protections in the face of the orcas’ ongoing population declines.

“Emergency orders are specifically designed for circumstances like this, when you have a species that needs more than delayed plans and half-measures to survive and recover,” Christianne Wilhelmson, executive director of the Georgia Strait Alliance, said in a written statement. Last year, the previous

“I have to say, personally, I was very disappointed in the action that was taken by the environmental organizations,” said Wilkinson, the fisheries and ocean minister.“They were the ones who initially asked to convene the multi-stakeholder forum. They effectively attended one meeting and then decided that they would pursue a more adversarial approach rather than a collaborative approach.”

Wilhelmson said the groups were prepared to work with government. “But the process that they set up was all about talking, not about action,” she said. “It was clear that this was just another process that was going to take months and months and months — and the orcas don’t have that.”

 

Slowdowns could reduce noise impacts of increased Arctic shipping

Animal Communication, Ocean, shipping No Comments »

Several recent studies highlight the heightened risks of increased Arctic shipping, along with some opportunities to minimize the effects of shipping noise on specific Arctic species and populations.

With the retreat of sea ice, both the Northwest Passage (along Canada’s northern coast) and the Northern Sea Route (along Russia’s northern coast) are seeing increases in commercial and fishing vessel traffic. While the first cruise ship crossed the Northwest Passage in 2016, Russia’s Northern Sea Route is the current center of activity, with both container ships and LNG (natural gas) tankers making pioneering transits without icebreakers over the past two summers.  Total ship numbers are still modest, as it’s not yet cheaper than the longer route through the Suez canal, but these test runs are explicitly intended to chart the course for rapid increases in the coming years; Russia aims to ship 80 million tons of cargo by 2024, up from 10 million tons in 2017 and 2018, and China is moving rapidly to implement a “Polar Silk Road” initiative to encourage companies to build the infrastructure necessary to ramp up this shortcut to European markets.

Two recent studies address key questions about the biological impact of increased shipping on Arctic ecosystems.  The first, from researchers at the University of Washington and the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, examined the ranges of 80 localized subpopulations of seven key Arctic species, and found that just over half (42) of these would hear increased shipping noise.  Of these, some species are more vulnerable than others:

“Narwhals have all the traits that make them vulnerable to vessel disturbances — they stick to really specific areas, they’re pretty inflexible in where they spend the summer, they live in only about a quarter of the Arctic, and they’re smack dab in the middle of shipping routes,” said co-author Kristin Laidre, a polar scientist at UW Applied Physics Laboratory’s Polar Science Center. “They also rely on sound, and are notoriously skittish and sensitive to any kind of disturbance.”

In addition to narwhals, beluga and bowhead whales and some subpopulations of walrus are likely to be vulnerable to increased noise; ringed and bearded seals, as well as polar bears, will be less vulnerable, thanks to widespread populations and spending much of the summer on land rather than in the water.  In addition, the researchers stressed that the Bering Strait is a key chokepoint for both Arctic sea routes, as well as being a crucial migratory corridor.

“I think we can learn a lot from areas that have already been thinking about these kinds of conflicts between ships and marine mammal populations — for example the North Atlantic right whale, or fin and blue whales around California,” Laidre said. “We could aim to develop some mitigation strategies in the Arctic that help ships avoid key habitats, adjust their timing taking into account the migration of animals, make efforts to minimize sound disturbance, or in general help ships detect and deviate from animals.”

A second study took a different tack, looking at whether speed reductions (as implemented in some areas around busy ports) would reduce the noise impacts.  They used an increasingly common metric, “listening space,” the area or volume of water within which an animal can hear its brethren, its prey, or other biologically important sounds. The researchers modeled ship noise in several key chokepoints on the Northwest Passage, calculating the distance over which vessels sounds would impact the listening space for several species, and at how much the effect could be moderated if the ships were slowed in key areas.  And indeed, the effects were significant:

Under quiet conditions, beluga whales experienced a 50 percent listening space loss when they were 7 to 14 kilometers (4.3 to 8.7 miles) away from a ship traveling at 25 knots. When ships slowed to 15 knots, whales could get as close as 2 to 4 kilometers before they experienced the same loss of listening space.

In other words, when a ship was going faster, the area over which it cut a beluga’s listening space in half might be more than three times larger. This difference is important because there are many places where whales cannot distance themselves from ships in the Arctic (in the narrow Prince of Wales Strait, animals can maintain a maximum distance of just 7 to 10 kilometers).

As always, the results are not all as simple as that; the researchers found that for some species, the effects are less in certain weather conditions or for different kinds of ships (container vs. cruise), and that in some situations, the effects can actually cover a larger area when ambient noise is high (as it increasingly is with loss of ice cover). And, as always with vessel-slowing programs, planners must consider the tradeoffs between moderating the noise level and increasing the time during which ships are audible during slower passages.

With the inevitable increase in Arctic shipping, it will be crucial for both governmental and commercial players take steps to minimize the acoustic impacts in these remote waters, among the last areas in the seas where human noise intrusions have been relatively modest.