Species Protection

Killer Whales are Drowning in Noise

Turn down the volume to turn up orca survival

photo: Rachael Merrett

The waters of the Salish Sea are getting louder with an increase in oil tankers and freighters, ferries, cruise ships, commercial and private vessels, naval sonar, underwater construction, and drilling and resource exploration.

The frequency of the sound emitted depends on the type of engines, the type of propellers, the speed of the vessels, the distance of the vessel from wildlife, and even the temperature and salinity of the water, making noise pollution an area that is particularly challenging to address.

» Learn more about other impacts of vessel traffic in the Georgia Strait

Human-made noise interferes with orcas’ ability to live because these marine mammals rely on hearing and the sounds they produce to hunt for food, navigate their environment, and communicate with one another. Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) acknowledges that both the physical presence of vessels and underwater noise from their engines hinders Southern Residents in their basic life activities.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada acknowledges that no mitigation actions have been implemented to address physical and acoustic disturbance from vessel traffic in orcas’ critical habitat

This noise results in lost foraging time and a reduction in food intake and also limits their ability to communicate during periods of high traffic. It’s important to note that these disruptions are taking place in orcas’ critical habitat—areas that are essential for the survival and recovery of an endangered species; however, no mitigation actions have been implemented by DFO to date.

photo: Rachael Merrett

What’s the newest threat in high-traffic oceans?

Collisions between orcas and vessels. To date, two deaths of Southern Residents are consistent with vessel strikes, but that number is likely to increase if the Kinder Morgan pipeline project is approved as oil tankers carrying bitumen from the pipeline through orcas’ critical habitat will increase to 34 each month—up from five right now.

The ECHO Program: a Port-led vessel slowdown trial

For a two-month period in late 2017, the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority led a vessel slowdown trial to investigate some of the impacts of shipping activities on the three key threats to Southern Resident killer whales. The ECHO (Enhancing Cetacean Habitat and Observation) Program requested commercial ships voluntarily slow their speed to 11 knots within a 16 nautical mile corridor of the Haro Strait.

During the two-month ECHO Program in summer 2017, SRKWs were observed on only six days—a drastically lower number of sightings compared to the same period in 2016

Initial research indicates that vessel traffic diminishes SRKW’s hunting ability by roughly 23 percent, with commercial ships responsible for two-thirds of that reduction and whale watching vessels of all types—commercial and recreational—account for the remaining third.

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