Course:CONS200/2019/Implications of Trans-Mountain Pipeline Expansion for the Conservation of Southern Resident Killer Whales

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The Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion Project intends to increase the capacity of the current pipeline running from Edmonton to Burnaby by adding a second pipe built roughly parallel to the existing infrastructure[1]. The project would expand Trans Mountain's capacity from 300,000 barrels of diluted bitumen per day to 890,000, an approximate CAD $800,000,000 / month increase in revenue (based on March 2019 price of oil)[2]. The proposed expansion has created great controversy amongst First Nations, politicians, and the Canadian public due to its potential environmental impacts, specifically on the Southern Resident Killer Whale. Their concern is that the pipeline's new deliverance capacity would lead to a 300-600% increase in tanker traffic on the Southern Coast of British Columbia, thereby increasing risk factors for environmental pollution, oil spills and disruption of local ecologies [3].

File:Protect the Inlet Protest on Burnaby Mountain.jpg
"Protect the Inlet" and First Nations protestors gather in Burnaby, B.C. to rally against implementation of the Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion on April 7, 2018.

Southern Resident Killer Whales (SRKWs) are the smallest of four resident communities within the Northeastern portion of the North American Pacific Ocean. Their home range incorporates the entire Salish Sea: the intricate network of coastal waterways between BC and Washington State[4]. It is the only killer whale population listed under the Endangered Species Act by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (United States), and is listed as endangered on Species at Risk Act Schedule 1 (Canada)[5]. As of September 2018 there are only 75 individuals remaining, marking their population's 30-year low[6].

If no remedial action is taken, many fear that the expansion of the Trans Mountain Pipeline will lead to an imminent extinction of Southern Resident Killer Whale, and pose a serious risk for ecosystems on the Southern Coast of British Columbia. To preserve the SRKW population, many believe that the best option is cancellation of the project. Total cancellation may be economically unfeasible for Canada's economy, which would directly benefit from the CAD $9.6 billion revenue provided from the expansion alone[2].

List of Acronyms
CCG Canadian Coast Guard
NEB National Energy Board
OPP Oceans Protection Plan
SRKW Southern Resident Killer Whale
TMP Trans Mountain Pipeline
WCMRC West Coast Marine Response Corporation

Impact of Shipping on SRKWs

Canadian Hydrographic Service chart of the Strait of Georgia showing traffic scheme for commercial vessels South of Vancouver.

One aspect of the Trans Mountain Pipeline’s expansion effects on the Southern Resident Killer Whale (SRKW) population is the physical threat posed by an increase in shipping traffic[7]. Doubling the capacity of the pipeline will result in an increase of 3-6x more daily trips through BC’s inland waters for tankers bringing oil products to Asia and the United States[8]. Petroleum tankers travel through Haro Strait, the Strait of Georgia, and Burrard Inlet to reach the Trans Mountain facility in Burnaby; covering some 280km of SRKW populated waters during this journey.

Conservationists have two primary concerns with increasing the incidence of Orca vs ship interactions:

Increased Underwater Noise

Killer whales depend on echolocation and acoustic communication to forage, socialize, and find mates [9]. Vessel noise from sonar, engine vibrations and water disturbance can interrupt the sophisticated echolocation system of killer whales and also inhibit their ability to navigate[10]. Killer whales can hear the noise from a marine engine up to 16km away, meaning disruptions are taking place in orcas’ critical habitat—areas that are essential for the survival and recovery of the endangered species[11].

For SRKWs, communication is key to successful hunting as they are highly social animals that live an in large family groups (pods)[12]. Increases in underwater noise effectively blind Killer whales from being able to “see”, and therefore causing significant health deficits from malnutrition and an inability to inter-communicate[9]. 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 account for the remaining third[13].

Collisions with Commercial Vessels

Because proximity to a large ship often “blinds” an Orca due to underwater noise, the incidence of collision increases significantly [14]. Thirty cetacean-vessel collisions were reported to the B.C. Marine Mammal Response Network hotline and investigated by Fisheries and Oceans Canada from 2004-2011[15]. Although tankers are restricted to the boundaries of shipping lanes, a collision between an Orca and ship’s propeller is most-often fatal[16]. By increasing the number of tankers travelling through SRKW habitat, the incidence for collision increases as well.

"For a two-month period in late 2017, the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority led a vessel slowdown to mitigate the risk of collision with Orca whales. The Enhancing Cetacean Habitat and Observation (ECHO) Program requested commercial ships voluntarily slow their speed to 11 knots within a 16 nautical mile corridor of the Haro Strait." [17]

Increased Chemical Pollution of Habitat

To understand the effects of oil spills on killer whales, the chemicals that they are being exposed to must be thoroughly understood. Oil is made up from dead plant and animal matter that is found buried under many layers of sedimentary rock[18] Pressure and heat cause oil deposits to form over long periods of time.[18]Crude oils are predominantly composed of hydrogen and carbon atoms.[18] Petroleum hydrocarbons are predominantly either alkanes or aromatics. Aromatics are the molecular compounds that are the most toxic to marine life—they are very persistent in the environment. On the other hand, alkanes tend to biodegrade naturally and are far less toxic—many alkanes can be ingested by microorganisms as food.[18]

Effects of Contaminants Released into the Water

The specific effects of oil spills on killer whales are difficult to analyze. It is known that when killer whales are exposed to oil, they face external problems such as skin irritation, ulceration or eye irritation.[18] If the oil is ingested, killer whales also face internal problems.[18] The external and internal problems caused by oil spills can result in population-level impacts.[18] Oil spills will certainly have negative effects on killer whales, it must also be taken into consideration that they are unable to actively detect and avoid them.[18]

The killer whale population is listed as endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act and is protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Program in the coastal water of the Pacific Northwest. Since killer whales rely primarily on echolocation, “hazing” methods have been used to try to detour the whales away from the oil spills.[18] This includes methods such as acoustic deterrent devices, pre-recorded killer whale calls, oikomi pipes and boat traffic that provides noise and motion to detour the whales away from the oil.[18] Even with these methods for keeping the orcas away from the oil, an increase in oil spills would have a definite negative effect due to the fact that killer whales spend most of their time in the busy waters of Vancouver, Seattle and San Juan Islands.[19]

How Indigenous Peoples View Orca Whales  

Aboriginal culture values orca whales as one of their most important figures—they are seen as protectors of the people, and icons that remind humanity to be strong, take care of one another and to live well.[20] The Killer Whale is the animal that symbolizes the power of nature and it is important to aboriginal peoples that they live in harmony with them.[20] Orca whales are also valued to the aboriginal peoples because they live by the same ‘family values’.[20] Orcas take care of their offspring individually and help them through various stages of life—progressing from childhood to adolescence and finally, to maturity.[20] This is the same way that aboriginal peoples approach parenthood, creating a special bond between the peoples and the killer whales.[20]

There are many legends that have been created from stories over time; the First Nations legends surrounding BC’s orca whales are created through real experiences and encounters.[20] These legends have lead First Nations groups to respect and understand killer whales. Through the stories that have been passed down through generations, the orca whale has become a spiritual beacon—reminding people of the impact the humans have on the planet. [20]

Increased Ecosystem Load

Human population continues to increase and alongside this comes increasing large scale climate changes, economic related environmental degradation such as the Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion, and the interaction of multiple stressors[21]. Understanding the cumulative effect of these stresses on marine ecosystems has become increasingly important.

A major driver of change occurring in coastal and marine ecosystems are industrial developments such as the Trans Mountain Pipeline, which have direct acute impacts on the local ecosystem of the Coastal Region[21]. With the occurrence of significant industrial developments such as the expansion of the Trans Mountain Pipeline, ecosystems like that supporting the SRKW's are faced with implications of this development in relation to marine ecosystem health[22].

Marine Ecosystem Health in Relation to Orca Whales

Salmon spawning in coastal rivers: a key food source for SRKWs

The effects of planned industrial development (pipelines) in relation to marine ecosystems and the impacts of planned developments such as the industrial pipeline have severe cumulative effects on nearshore habitats[23]. The food source of the SRKW's and other marine life is at a significantly greater risk from planned industrial and pipeline activities. In particular, the impacts of planned pipelines on rocky inter-tidal habitats cause the highest change in cumulative effects[24].

These findings are vital in relation to the SRKW's. When decisions like the implementation of an industrial pipeline are made, we often do not consider the effects this choice may have on small scale factors such as fish population or vegetation degradation[25]. The reality is, these small-scale local impacts have a direct correlation to the larger ecosystem, and a significant one for that matter[24]. By altering any part of the ecosystem, whether it’s through industrial activity or not, there is risk of pushing the health of the environment beyond its resilience point[26] causing a serious negative effect on the SRKW's and their supporting ecosystem.

Orca's are apex predators at the top of the food chain and require significant food sources. Killer whales feed on seabirds, squid, octopuses, sea turtles, sharks, rays, and various fish, but in the case of the SRKW's, the Pacific Salmon sits atop this list. Beyond the effects that the pipeline would have on general marine ecosystem health, the Trans Mountain line has the potential to have detrimental effects on the Salmon populations that sustain the SRKW's[27]. The interdependence between orcas and salmon illustrates the importance of healthy ocean ecosystems[28]. It is vital to acknowledge salmon and their supporting ecosystems as protected species in economic decisions or one of the most iconic whale populations (SRKW's) likely won’t survive[28].

Pipeline crossing construction will negatively affect watercourse ecosystems[25][29]. Construction activities alter river and stream channel beds and banks, directly and indirectly affecting the salmon habitat which the SRKW's rely upon. The effects of pipeline crossing construction on aquatic ecosystems has been studied by numerous authors [30][31][32]. These studies have documented various effects of pipeline construction on streams and rivers and the correlation to fish health in association with elevated suspended solid concentrations and increased sediment deposition. With the history of previous pipelines and their negative effects on stream health, the construction of the Trans Mountain Pipeline poses very real potential risks[33]. The potential of Salmon populations being harmed because of this construction is a reality that will not only affect the marine ecosystems fueled by the rivers and salmon populations, but directly impact the SRKW's main food source.

Options for Remedial Action

Spill Risks of Trans Mountain Pipeline on Orca Population

Orca whales are considered to be endangered under Canada’s Species at Risk Act.[34] The Trans Mountain pipeline tanker route is increasing the risk of potential oil spills in the Salish Sea, which could have catastrophic effects on the Orca population.[34] Oil spills significantly effect Orca whale mortality rates; as observed following the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989, the 36 whales which inhabited the region were reduced by 7 individuals 6 days post spill, and 6 more disappeared the following year.[35] In regard to the Trans Mountain Project, there has been virtually no Orca population growth in the region throughout the past 4 years, and the pipeline expansion is predicted to intensify already existing threats.[35] 800 annual tanker transits through the Salish Sea will be required annually, which poses high risk to the population and increases the chance of oil spills, and potentially leading extinction of the species.[34]

If a spill were to occur, the complex topography and tidal patterns of the waters between the mainland and Vancouver Island would effect the spread of the spill significantly.[36] The tidal estuarine system from the several rivers including the Fraser river create a circulatory current.[36] An oil spill would be quickly spread out and carried away from the initial site, which would extend the span of the effected area.[36] The probability of a spill over the size of 1,000 m3 from the Trans Mountain Pipeline is considered to be at a medium level of risk, while the probability of a spill over 10,000 m3 is considered low on the risk scale.[36] Despite this, the Trans Mountain pipeline is one of three pipelines at greatest risk of an oil spill in Canada, taking in to consideration the probability of occurrence and the ecological consequences.[36]

Prevention and Regulation of Risks

The National Energy Board is responsible for assessing the environmental impacts of energy projects prior to their execution by examining a number of factors. The Trans Mountain Expansion Project has been assessed by the NEB, and the environmental assessment takes in to consideration possible environmental affects, the sufficiency of proposed mitigation measures, and the significance of the mitigation measures post implementation.[37] The report by the NEB states that the expansion project will have significant harmful affects on the Orca population.[38] If the pipeline is approved, the NEB will implement 156 conditions and 16 recommendations to the Government of Canada to ensure the best possible outcome for the environment surrounding the expansion project.[38]

The primary regulation of oil spill response is managed by Transport Canada in the Canada Shipping act of 2001. As a condition of operating in Canadian waters, all oil handling facilities and all large vessels are required to obtain a contract with a certified response organization.[36] The West Coast Marine Response Corporation (WCMRC) is responsible for operations on the west coast of Canada. The WCMRC has the competence to react to oil spills that are up to 10,000 tonnes, with allowance of 72 hours to dispatch the emergency equipment required.[36]

Federal Regulation

Canadian Coast Guard assets provide much of the marine response capabilities that support the Oceans Protection Plan

Along with the WCMRC and NEB, the Oceans Protection Plan (OPP)  is an implemented investment strategy by the Canadian Government which aims to maintain safe and clean Canadian waters for  future generations, and is intended to implement world-leading safety systems and improve and prevent response to ecological disasters which are imposed by the Trans Mountain Expansion Project.[39] Along with an action plan for this project, the Canadian government will invest $1.5 billion over five years to ensure the success of the OPP. The OPP will monitor traffic by installing 8 new radar devices to provide Traffic Service Centres and Marine Communications with active, accurate information on tanker traffic.[39] Upgraded navigational information will be provided to 20 of Canada's highest traffic commercial ports and waterways.[39]

The OPP will include Indigenous communities in their planning for the project.[39] This will help identify and prioritize aspects of conservation in highly ecologically sensitive areas, and enable authorities to take action rapidly.[39] With this information, Environment and Climate Change Canada will create a geospatial platform which provides environmental sensitivity information in response to potential oil spills.[39] In addition to this, the OPP will ensure that if a spill were to occur, the polluter responsible for it would be held accountable.

Specifically in regard to marine mammals, the OPP addresses the threat that the Trans Mountain Expansion Project will impose on them.[39] The government plans to mitigate effects of noise on whales and address priority issues through the coastal habitat restoration fund. Whale detection systems will also be established throughout habitats which alerts tankers to avoid collisions.[39]


It is difficult to completely grasp the multitude of interconnected factors that will affect the SRKW population in relation to the implementation of the Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion. Vessel traffic, chemical pollution, food-chain/ecosystem detriments, and the overall spill impacts should a disastrous event occur are all aspects that must be considered in policy making and protection of the SRKW’s.

The expansion of the Trans Mountain Pipeline would be extremely beneficial to the Canadian economy[40], but there are significant ecological ramifications that come with this planned industrial development demonstrated in this page. Analyzing the contrasting economic and environmental impacts of the Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion is necessary in policy today to produce a better understanding of the research needed in order to reach a common ground. Mitigating the potential detrimental effects of the Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion would, as shown, be extremely beneficial to the SRKW population and would significantly reduce the risk of SRKW extinction.

The Ocean’s Protection Plan showcases costs associated with implementing the pipeline, such as the contrasting economic and environmental impacts of the project. This page has detailed the pipeline’s effect on marine ecosystems, and the implications that a pipeline related marine disaster could have on the Orca’s supporting ecosystem (being a keystone species). It further analyzes the effect of chemicals released from oil spills and various vessels, effects on the SRKW's food source (spawning salmon), and the impact of increasing tanker traffic in the Salish Sea.

The NEB, WCMRC, OPP and other entities are working collectively in understanding the risks associated with the Trans-Mountain Pipeline but it will take further research and a united effort to fully comprehend whether the pros of this project outweigh the cons.


Please use the Wikipedia reference style (see Wikipedia:Inline citation). Provide a citation for every sentence, statement, thought, or bit of data not your own, giving the author, year, AND page (when using direct quotes). For dictionary references for English-language terms, I strongly recommend you use the Oxford English Dictionary. You can reference foreign-language sources but please also provide translations into English.

Note: Before writing your wiki article on the UBC Wiki, it may be helpful to review the tips in Wikipedia: Writing better articles.[40] (Note that - if you look on the edit screen for this page when you are logged in - you will also see this as an example of how to create a reference!)

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Seekiefer (Pinus halepensis) 9months-fromtop.jpg
This conservation resource was created by Will. It is shared under a CC-BY 4.0 International License.