Through our engagement activities with coastal communities, Aboriginal groups and other stakeholders, we know the protection of marine mammals is a concern for our region, including the conservation of the endangered southern resident killer whale. To mitigate potential Project effects on these whales, Trans Mountain will be required by the National Energy Board to develop a Marine Mammal Protection Program (MMPP) that will focus on strategies to be implemented by the time the Project is operational. However, we also recognize regardless of whether or not our Project proceeds, key threats of marine shipping to whales in the region remain a current and future concern.

Currently, approximately 3,100 commercial vessels, including around 60 tankers, call annually at the Port of Vancouver and this volume is expected to rise. If the Project is approved, tanker traffic calling at our Westridge Marine Terminal will increase to about 350 tankers per year, but forecasting shows this will account for only about 6.6 percent of all large commercial vessels trading in the region. These figures also don’t account for other marine traffic, such as ferries, fishing vessels and recreational boats. As a result, impacts on the region’s whale population are occurring regardless of whether the Project is approved and this is an issue that must be addressed by all marine users. The solution lies in a group effort and Trans Mountain is taking a leadership role despite our relatively small contribution to the issue.

In BC, there are some great new programs, such as the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority led Enhancing Cetacean Habitat and Observation (ECHO) Program. This collaborative initiative, supported by Trans Mountain, brings expert scientists, regulators and industry together to expand our understanding of the effects of marine shipping on whales, while working towards practical and effective mitigations.

We recently sat down with Andrea Ahrens, senior marine mammal biologist at Stantec, to learn more about some of the threats at-risk whales face and how those threats can be mitigated.

What’s your background and involvement with Trans Mountain?

I’m a registered professional biologist with more than fourteen years experience in marine ecology. As a marine mammal scientist, I assess the potential effects human activities may have on marine mammal populations and make recommendations to industry (including Trans Mountain) on ways they can reduce those effects.

What are the key threats to at-risk whales, including southern resident killer whales, off the south coast?

Many whale populations have started to show recovery from previous stressors, such as commercial whaling, but they now face other types of human caused pressure. While effects vary by area and species, the primary ones facing most whales are: increases in human disturbance (including from underwater noise), potential for injury from entanglement or vessel strikes and exposure to marine contaminants. Some species, such as the southern resident killer whale, are also highly dependent on particular prey species, so having access to sufficient, quality prey is critical to them.

How important is it for there to be industry wide efforts to mitigate the effects of maritime shipping and other activities on marine mammals in the region?

It’s essential everyone do their part. However, regional collaborative initiatives are likely to be the most effective way to instigate real change.

Our understanding of how human activities can adversely affect marine mammal species continues to grow and it’s encouraging to see movement towards implementing some of the lessons we’ve learned.

You mentioned underwater noise is one of the current threats impacting killer whales in BC. Why is it such a threat and what programs are currently underway relating to underwater noise?

Marine mammals are highly dependent on the underwater acoustic environment – they use sound to communicate, socialize, navigate, avoid predators, detect prey and find mates. Some of the primary human sources of underwater noise in BC include large vessel traffic, small commercial and recreational boats and marine construction activities, such as pile driving, blasting and dredging. These activities can interfere with a marine mammal’s ability to transmit and perceive important environmental cues – introduced noise can disrupt whales’ attempts to communicate and may affect their foraging success. As human activities continue to increase, the ocean continues to get louder, causing increases in stress for these animals that depend on the marine soundscape for all aspects of their life history.

Marine shipping is the biggest source of recent increases in underwater noise, but there are a number of options to help reduce the impact. The best approach to mitigation is by designing, constructing or re-fitting vessels with noise-quieting technology – this involves minimizing propeller cavitation (where most of the noise comes from), reducing machinery vibration and insulating engines. For ships that are already built, there are maintenance and operational measures that can make a huge difference: keeping the hull clean and the propeller maintained and free of nicks, reducing vessel speeds and avoiding unnecessarily rapid acceleration (both of these actions cause increased cavitation and noise). In some areas, shipping lanes have been re-routed to avoid high concentration areas for sensitive marine species. The Port of Vancouver has created an infographic to help illustrate the effects of marine noise on whales and what mariners can do about it. You can view the infographic here.

What are some of the other regional initiatives to help reduce potential threats to whales?

Fisheries and Oceans Canada and the Vancouver Aquarium are involved in a number of regional marine mammal programs (including ECHO). Volunteer reporting networks such as the BC Cetacean Sightings Network and the Marine Mammal Response Program allow the public to contribute to marine mammal monitoring and rescue efforts. The Be Whale Wise Guidelines instruct recreational boaters and whale watchers on the best way to maneuver around whales so as to reduce disturbance. We also have a lot of great local research scientists that are devoted to improving our understanding of marine mammals and developing new and innovative ways to reduce our impacts.