An adult female orca and calf swim in Washington state’s Puget Sound
Photo: NOAA Fisheries/Vancouver Aquarium (AP)

Orcas are one of the Pacific Northwest’s most iconic creatures. But despite their beloved status, the local resident population known as the Southern Resident killer whales are critically endangered, with just 75 known animals left. Now, advocates worry the Trudeau government’s plan to purchase the Trans Mountain Expansion Project may push the whales to the edge of extinction.

Southern Resident killer whales are acoustically, culturally, and genetically distinct from other orca populations. While they can be found from California to southern Alaska, they generally spend May through the fall in the inland waters of British Columbia and Washington state. Known as the Salish Sea, it’s one of the world’s busiest shipping routes, a reality that’s considered one of the biggest threats to the population, which has remained small and vulnerable for decades despite receiving federal protection in 2005. And the Salish Sea is about to get busier.

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The Trans Mountain expansion, which is the twinning of an existing oil pipeline that carries diluted bitumen from the Alberta tar sands to British Columbia’s shores, is expected to cause the number of oil tankers passing through these waters to jump from around the 60 that annually service the existing pipeline to over 400. “The ships go exactly where the whales go,” Misty MacDuffee, marine biologist and the Wild Salmon Program Director for B.C.’s Raincoast Conservation Foundation, told Earther.

Earlier this spring, it looked like the whales might receive a reprieve from the increased noise, shipping traffic, and possible marine oil spills associated with the project. In April Kinder Morgan, the Texas-based company behind the expansion, made noises about shutting it down due to growing delays caused by court battles and indigenous-led resistance against the project.

But, after declaring the pipeline vital to national interests, in late May the Canadian government moved to purchase the expansion. Now, a project that Raincoast Conservation Foundation’s population viability analysis found “increases the risk to more than 50% probability that the population will decline below 30 animals,” is back on.

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Lynne Barre, the Southern Resident killer whale recovery coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), told Earther that the orcas are already on shaky ground.“This is the lowest number that we’ve seen in about 30 years,” she said.

Barre explained that inconsistent populations of Chinook salmon, the whales’ preferred food, has led to fewer fish to eat, while noise from increasing boat traffic masks their acoustic signals, making finding that prey harder. These two factors force the whales to use their blubber stores, fat that is often heavily contaminated with toxins such as PCB. “This can cause reproduction issues,” added Barre, which may explain why the population hasn’t had a surviving calf since 2015.

“These whales are in trouble and the pipeline makes it worse,” said MacDuffee.

The potential seven-fold increase in oil tanker traffic ups the risk of a marine oil spill, though by how much is debatable. According to reporting by The Globe and Mail, Kinder Morgan has stated that a major spill is a one-in-473 year event, while a report commissioned by the City of Vancouver pegged the risk of a marine oil spill over the planned 50-year life of the pipeline at between 16 and 67 per cent. MacDuffee’s organization doesn’t put a number on the likelihood, “We just tend to view it as highly likely.”

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Barre noted that the population would be especially vulnerable to an oil spill in the summer months, when they “can all be in the same place at the same time.” Based on research that came out of the Exxon Valdez and Deepwater Horizon spills, NOAA learned that orcas don’t necessary avoid oil, and that it can cause a host of health problems.

But while an oil spill isn’t a given, increased noise from those dozens of additional tankers is and that, said MacDuffee, is the biggest threat the whales face from the pipeline. As Barre explained, the sound can mask their echolocation signals, making it harder for the whales to successfully hunt as well as communicate with each other.

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Even the presence of a boat has been shown to reduce the whales’ foraging efficiency, according to research conducted by Raincoast.

The Canadian government acknowledges that increased tanker traffic generated by the expansion will have “significant” impact on the whales, but it believes that it can be lessened by other mitigation actions.

“The Government of Canada is committed to supporting the recovery of the Southern Resident Killer Whale and is taking action to address threats to these whales,” a spokesperson from the Fisheries and Oceans Canada told Earther. “We are committed to more than mitigating the impact of additional tanker traffic before any shipping associated with the Project begins.”

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Shortly before announcing its plans to purchase the pipeline expansion, the Canadian government released new measures designed to assist Southern Resident killer whales. Among them are reducing Chinook salmon catches by 25-to-35 per cent, and increasing funding for projects aimed at restoring the fish’s habitat.

While MacDuffee believes these measures are useful, she doesn’t see them as a solution to the Southern resident killer whales’ declining numbers. “We want no increases in shipping traffic and we want reductions in the noise from ships,” two measures that seem incompatible with the Trans Mountain expansion.

While the pipeline has the federal government on its side, the whales may have the law. Raincoast is currently awaiting the verdict on a lawsuit it launched against the project. Heard last fall before Canada’s Federal Court of Appeal, the case should be ruled on any day now. MacDuffee notes that depending on the verdict, Raincoast may launch additional legal action on behalf of the whales to force the federal government to halt the pipeline project.

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It’s unclear what a declining, or an extinct, Southern resident killer whale population means for the Salish Sea. It’s possible that the killer whales that now live more north may come in and fill the void of apex predator.

“There’s likely an ecological cost but socially, culturally and economically it would be a real blow,” said MacDuffee. She believes that despite their low numbers, Southern residents can bounce back, but not without conservation measures that directly clash with Canada’s ambitions to move more of its oil to Asian customers.

“It’s a sad indication of a society that is one of the wealthiest and most affluent in the world, that we can’t find a way to protect this iconic and emblematic animal that so many people care so deeply about,” MacDuffee said.

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Update 6/18: This article was updated to reflect a new orca survey which found that the total number of Southern resident killer whales has dropped from 76 to 75.

Lindsay is a Toronto-based freelance writer who covers health, science and parenting.