Threats to the Salish Sea

The fuel spill in English Bay this week and the slow response time as a result of government cutbacks show that the Coast Guard is not prepared to meet the challenges presented by the new supertankers that will soon arrive.

The rapid growth of mega-refineries is prompting a new class of oil supertankers – mirroring an earlier revolution in crude oil shipping – as traders look for scale that was previously not economically viable.

Vitol, Total and Shell have already booked crude oil tankers such as ‘Overseas Laura Lynn’ with a weight of 441,585 tons. In comparison, the MV Marathassa, the bulk container ship responsible for the bunker fuel spill in English Bay, carries a weight of 80,635 tons.

In addition to oil spills, vessels are also responsible for another hidden threat: ocean noise pollution.

How ocean noise pollution affects whales

Whales, dolphins and porpoises use sonar to detect, locate, and track prey.

For a blue whale that was born 70 years ago, its ‘acoustic bubble’ – the distance
over which its vocalisations can travel and the vocalisations of others can be
heard – has shrunk from 1,600 kilometres at its birth to just 160 kilometres today.  Whales have been forced to increase the volume and frequency of their calls to defeat the cacophony of underwater noise.

The acoustic bubble of whales
The acoustic bubble of whales

A 2012 study found a correlation between shipping noise and chronic stress in whales. Whales have lost, on average, upwards of 70 percent of their communication space. Whales have shorter diving periods and lower respiration rates.

Leila Hatch, NOAA’s Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary marine ecologist reports that “large whales, such as right whales, rely on their ability to hear far more than their ability to see. Chronic noise is likely reducing their opportunities to gather and share vital information that helps them find food and mates, navigate, avoid predators and take care of their young.”

Increases in shipping traffic associated with coal exports will bring increased noise pollution to the Salish Sea.

The loudest 10 per cent of vessels contribute the great majority of ocean noise from shipping – according to some estimates between 48 and 88 per cent.  Much of this is generated by inefficient propeller design and function; improvements in propeller design for new ships and adjustments to the flow of water into propellers on existing ships, could result in substantial noise reductions.

If ships were to reduce their speed from 14 knots to 12, it would reduce the total acoustic footprint for the world’s cargo fleet by 66%.

Looking for oil and gas with airgun arrays

A seismic or seabed survey involves directing a high energy sound pulse into the sea floor and measuring the pattern of reflected sound waves. The main sound-producing elements used in oil and gas exploration are airgun arrays, which are towed from marine vessels.

Such arrays are almost unfathomably loud; Cornell University researcher Christopher Clark has stated that, by lowering  hydrophones (underwater microphones) into the water, he can hear “seismic exploration activity … 2,000 miles away  in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, the same way I can hear one off west Africa or Canada or the west coast of Ireland. And it’s not for a week, it’s for months.”

Seismic testing with airgun arrays are used to locate oil and gas deposits below the ocean floor.

In 2012, Shell and BP used three seismic ships in the Arctic carrying 40 air guns some of which fired simultaneously for 24 hours a day.

Alternatives to airguns exist such as marine vibroseis, which is capable of gathering seismic data at volumes 100 times quieter than airguns, would result in a 10,000 fold reduction in the area of impact. But the oil and gas industry has been too cheap to make the change. Airgun design has not changed in 30 years, even though the electronics of operating them has.

Humpback whales exposed to explosions associated with construction off Newfoundland were subsequently much more likely to become fatally entangled in fishing nets.

Military Excercise Areas:

A map of Vancouver Island shows it is completely surrounded by military exercise areas (most of them start with the letter ‘W’ which stands for Whiskey).

Canyons are key feeding grounds for whales but military excercise areas such as Whiskey Golf in the Ballenas Basin is also the location of weapons testing and naval exercises, for at least 3 days (all day long) per month. These exercises include some using mid frequency active sonar, by vessels operating out of Nanoose Bay. Post-mortem examinations of dead whales have revealed haemorrhaging around the brain and in the inner ears, the result of acoustic trauma. This noise doesn’t include the presence of navy helicopters which hover close to the surface of the water for hours at a time and can be heard on shore in Nanaimo.

Race Rocks near Victoria falls within military exercise areas Whiskey Quebec ‘WQ’ and Whiskey Alpha ‘WA’. This ecological reserve and Marine Protected Area is home to endangered Stellar sea lions as well as a habitual spot for salmon-eating orcas. Blasts from Bentinck Island Demolition Range at Canadian Forces Ammunition Depot (CFAD) Rocky Point continues to disturb the sea lions at Race Rocks. Although the DND is spacing out their explosive testing by ten minutes and claim to watch out for nesting birds and seal pups, the close proximity of Bentinck Island to Race Rocks has scientists concerned. They have warned that the Stellar sea lion populations will keep dropping and have asked the Department of National Defense to find another area to use.

Albert Head Training Area (CYR 156) near Metchosin is also used for demolition exercises. Whiskey Hotel ‘WH’ on the west side of Vancouver Island is another area used for ‘live firing’.

Orca L112 - killed by acoustic blast from sonar in 2012
Orca L112 – killed by acoustic blast from sonar in 2012

Sonar and small underwater explosive activity was confirmed by the Royal Canadian Navy on February 4, 5, and 6, 2012  off Vancouver Island and in the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

K  and  L  pod  members  fled from the military activity and were found in  Discovery  Bay  on  February 7th.  Apparently not all the whales made it to safety.

Orca L112 washed up on the beach a few days later. Scientists who examined the whale noted:

“the right cerebral hemisphere and cerebellum were completely mushed (axonal shearing and cellular disintegration?) and there was evidence of hemorrhage in the calvarium, both significant findings of brain damage from a blast impact. The observations are consistent with blast trauma, and significance should not be discounted!”