Bigger buffer zone for orcas, but not in Canada

Washington State signed new legislation that requires boats to keep 914 metres from orcas, more than doubling the current requirement, beginning in January 2025. Unfortunately, Canada isn’t following suit.

Originally published in PostMedia’s The Province on May 18.

Endangered southern resident orcas are on the verge of getting a lot more space, but not if they are in Canadian waters.

Across the invisible boundary that divides the Salish Sea, Washington state signed new legislation this week that requires boats to keep 914 metres from southern resident orcas, more than doubling the current 365-metre requirement, beginning in January 2025. Unfortunately, Canada isn’t following suit, instead stating only an intention to hold a consultation process this year to consider adjustments to approach distances.

On this side of the border, the 400-metre distance that watercraft must keep from orcas in southern coastal waters from Campbell River to Ucluelet is an interim order, meaning it is a non-permanent mechanism the minister of transport has enacted yearly since 2019 to enable immediate action and compliance.

This particular measure holds such importance because orcas rely on echolocation to hunt, communicate with others in their pod, and travel. Noise from vessels creates underwater disturbance that severely impedes their ability to echolocate and, ultimately, survive. Disappointingly, the federal government made no changes to distances that watercraft must keep from orcas this year.

The federal government did, however, recently commit $152 million over three years for endangered whale protection (including southern resident, northern right and beluga whales). That investment was promptly undermined days later, just before Earth Day, when the government approved a massive $3.5-billion infrastructure project on the Fraser River estuary in Delta. This highly biodiverse, intertidal area — an exceptionally significant habitat for orcas and their main food source of wild salmon, and is the size of 170 football fields — is now closer to being fundamentally altered to accommodate a three-berth shipping container terminal.

Roberts Bank Terminal 2, as the project is known, will increase vessel activity in and out of the terminal throughout the Fraser estuary area. And while the proponent is supposed to ensure that an increase in container vessel noise from shipping above the current baseline of existing shipping doesn’t happen, there is no real backstop if it turns out they are unable to do this.

The federal government’s approach to orca protection has become detrimental: They’re actively approving projects such as the Roberts Bank terminal that are altering the habitat of orcas and increasing threats to already at-risk species, and they are not acting on the science that confirms these whales need a minimum 1,000-metre buffer to offset the negative impacts of underwater noise. Nor are they holding these projects to high standards, with regulations that can keep orcas safe and support their resiliency to additional stressors.

Perhaps what is behind Canada’s unwillingness to implement larger buffer zones and permanent measures for orcas is that they have already decided to give the shipping industry a pass by approving projects that will attenuate existing protection measures that are already insufficient for the population.

But we cannot keep putting the economy above the environment if we’re going to halt the alarming biodiversity loss and harmful impacts of climate change. The interconnectedness of all of these decisions is putting immense pressure on the 73 southern resident orcas left in the wild, of which there are only 25 reproducing-age females.

Now is the time for Canada to implement a 1,000-metre buffer zone in all B.C. waters — and it can do that quickly by way of an interim order — but it hasn’t.

Quieter waters, with larger buffer zones between these endangered whales and watercraft of all sizes, is not the silver bullet for their survival, but it is an incredibly important tool to give them much more of the space they need, so they have a fighting chance.

Image: Tom Middleton

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