The San Juan Islands, smack-dab in the middle of the Salish Sea, attract thousands and thousands of summer visitors – the two-legged kind. One of the main reasons they choose to visit the islands is to see our other summer visitors – the finned kind. The Southern Resident Killer Whales (SRKW), or orca whales, do not show up in the thousands however, but are fewer than 80 in number and, with the 7 reported dead or missing last year, are declining still.
In 2005, NOAA determined the SRKW to be in danger of extinction, and so added them to the Endangered Species List . The critical habitat legally designated under the Endangered Species Act for the SRKW is the Salish Sea, which reaches north across the Canadian border to Georgia Strait, south into Puget Sound, and west to the mouth of the Strait of Juan de Fuca. By definition, what makes the Salish Sea a habitat critical to the SRKW is that it “contains features essential for their conservation” and that it “may require special management and protection”. From San Juan Islanders’, and the orcas’, points of view there is no “may” about it.
Threats to the essential features of the Salish Sea, and therefore the whales, abound. One of the biggest threats is the recently approved Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project. This pipeline will transport Alberta tar sands crude oil (particularly heavy, toxic oil also known as diluted bitumen or “dilbit”) to Vancouver BC where it will be loaded onto tankers. As approved, 348 more tankers per year will travel the west side of our islands on their way to US, and potentially Asian, refineries. Many Canadians are advocating for rerouting the pipeline to a Washington State refinery, which would export the tar sands through Rosario Strait, along our eastern and southern shores. Either way, the islands – and the orcas – are surrounded.
Ship noise pollution hinders the whales’ search for food. Ship strikes happen and may have been the cause of death for J34, a member of the J-pod found dead in Canadian waters on December 20. Oil spills of any size and form – be it a container ship’s propulsion fuel, or an oil tanker’s cargo – will decimate the whales’ food supply and our islands’ tourist economy because oil spill “cleanup” is impossible.
Of all the new and proposed terminal projects in the Salish Sea, the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion would cause the greatest oil spill risk: a 9-fold (800%) increase of a 20,000 barrel or larger spill over the next ten years in Haro Strait/Boundary Pass.
It wouldn’t take much of an oil spill to push the orcas over the brink or to devastate our islands’ economy and way of life, which is dependent on a healthy marine environment and unspoiled natural resources.
The San Juans aren’t the only community that would be negatively affected by the increase in shipping traffic due to this project. Imagine every city, town or village on or near the Salish Sea that relies on the marine environment for its livelihood. Imagine every company or community that identifies with the sea, and the orca in particular, and perhaps even uses the orca as its namesake, logo, or welcome sign. Now imagine every orca logo being replaced by a tanker logo.
If you live, work or play on or near the Salish Sea, if you have ever been a visitor to the islands (or longed to be), if you care about the future of the Sea and its inhabitants – two-legged, finned, or otherwise – and if it’s important to you to prevent any additional hazards to these inhabitants, then please write to Governor Inslee and our US Senators Cantwell and Murray and tell them.
Islanders and island-lovers need to urge our governor and representatives to engage with the Canadian government. We need to tell Canada that this project is not in our state’s or our country’s best interest. We need to remind them that oil spills know no borders.
Please write and urge them to enact strong legislation that will protect our waters from the threats that this pipeline and other such projects will bring to the Salish Sea – unless we want it to be known as a highway for tankers instead of a healthy home for orcas.
For more information on increased shipping in the Salish Sea, please visit the safe shipping page on the Friends of the San Juans’ website.
Shaun Hubbard is a 5th-generation San Juan Islander and co-founder of San Juan Islanders for Safe Shipping, a grassroots educational outreach and advocacy group in the San Juan Islands focused on shipping safety and oil spill prevention.