The Northern Gateway Joint Review Panel has refused to consider the latest findings from the Department of Fisheries and Ocean on humpback whale critical habitat on the coast of British Columbia, including areas of ocean that could be on the route of tankers carrying diluted bitumen from Kitimat.
On October 21, 2013, Fisheries and Oceans released a report called Recovery Strategy for the North Pacific Humpback Whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) in Canada. The DFO report notes that humpback whales are a species of “special concern” by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada.
It is DFO policy to assist the humpback whale population to recover from the century of whaling that almost drove the species to extinction. The report identified four areas of “critical habitat” for humpbacks. One critical habitat zone is Gil Island at the mouth of Douglas Channel.
Last week, on November 13, Smithers based environmental activist Josette Weir filed a notice of motion with the JRP requesting that the panel consider the DFO report as late evidence.
Weir acknowledged that the JRP proceedings closed on June 24, after final arguments in Terrace, but she noted that rules allow the Board to override the final closure. She argued that the humpback report fell within the JRP’s mandate since the DFO report is “is likely to assist the Panel.”
Weir noted in her motion that there was insufficient information before the JRP that would identify critical humpback habitat.
Three of the four critical known habitats are on the proposed tanker routes, and the Recovery Strategy acknowledges that other areas have not been identified. Without such information, it is impossible to assess the potential effects of the marine transport of bitumen on this endangered species.Activities likely to destroy or degrade critical habitat include vessel traffic, toxic spills, overfishing, seismic exploration, sonar and pile driving (i.e., activities that cause acoustic disturbance at levels that may affect foraging or communication, or result in the displacement of whales).
The report clearly identifies vessel traffic and toxic spills, which are associated with the Project as potential causes for destruction or degradation of the Humpback Whales’ critical habitat.
Weir went on to argue that the JRP had “insufficient information to develop relevant protection measures” because the humpback studies are ongoing, “meaning their results will not be available before decision.”
The Panel must consider this significant risk to an endangered listed species for which no meaningful protection measure can be offered against the risks associated with the Project.
Weir also noted that “No similar submission has been made by others, but I cannot predict if others will not see fit to do so.”
The JRP didn’t take long to reject Weir’s request, replying the next day, November 14.
In its response, the JRP cited the amended Joint Review Panel Agreement, signed after the passage of of the Jobs, Growth and Long-term Prosperity Act, the Omnibus Bill C-38, that “provides that the Panel’s recommendation report is to be submitted to the Minister of Natural Resources by 31 December 2013.”
The JRP then told Weir it didn’t have jurisdiction over endangered species (even if those species inhabit the tanker route) saying:
The Panel notes that the Recovery Strategy has been released in accordance with the provisions of the Species At Risk Act, as part of a legislative scheme that operates independently of this joint review process.
It goes on to say: “In this case, the Panel also notes that the Recovery Strategy was not authored by or for Ms. Wier.”
The executive summary of the DFO report noted:
Critical habitat for Humpback Whales in B.C. has been identified to the extent possible, based on the best available information. At present, there is insufficient information to identify other areas of critical habitat or to provide further details on the features and attributes present within the boundaries of identified critical habitat. Activities likely to destroy or degrade critical habitat include vessel traffic, toxic spills, overfishing, seismic exploration, sonar and pile driving (i.e., activities that cause acoustic disturbance at levels that may affect foraging or
communication, or result in the displacement of whales). A schedule of studies has been included to address uncertainties and provide further details on the critical habitat feature(s), as well as identify additional areas of critical habitat. It is anticipated that results from these studies will also assist in development of relevant protection measures for the critical habitat feature(s).
In the part of the report on the danger of toxic spills to humpbacks, the DFO report mentions that sinking of the BC ferry Queen of the North:
Toxic spills have occurred impacting marine habitat along the B.C. coast. For example, the Nestucca oil spill (1988) resulted in 875 tonnes of oil spilled in Gray’s Harbor, Washington. Oil slicks from this spill drifted into Canadian waters, including Humpback Whale habitat. In 2006, a tanker ruptured in Howe Sound, B.C. spilling approximately 50 tonnes of bunker fuel into coastal waters. In 2007, a barge carrying vehicles and forestry equipment sank near the Robson Bight-Michael Bigg Ecological Reserve within the critical habitat for Northern Resident Killer Whales, spilling an estimated 200 litres of fuel. The barge and equipment (including a 10,000L
diesel tank) were recovered without incident. When the Queen of the North sank on March 22, 2006, with 225,000 L of diesel fuel, 15,000 L of light oil, 3,200 L of hydraulic fluid, and 3,200 of stern tube oil, it did so on the tanker route to Kitimat, which is currently the subject of a pipeline and port proposal and within the current boundaries of Humpback Whale critical habitat
The DFO report also takes a crtical look at vessel strikes
In B.C. waters, Humpback Whales are the most common species of cetacean struck by vessels, as reported to the Marine Mammal Response Network. Between 2001 and 2008, there were 21 reports of vessel strikes involving Humpback Whales. Of these, 15 were witnessed collision events while the remaining 6 were of live individuals documented with fresh injuries consistent with recent blunt force trauma or propeller lacerations from a vessel strike.
Overall, vessel strikes can cause injuries ranging from scarring to direct mortality of individual whales. Some stranded Humpback Whales that showed no obvious external trauma, have been shown from necropsy to have internal injuries consistent with vessel strikes… It is unknown how many whales have died as a result of vessel strikes in B.C. waters. To date, only one reported dead Humpback Whale presented with evidence consistent with blunt force trauma and lacerations resulting from a vessel strike…
There are no confirmed reports of Humpback Whale collisions in B.C. waters attributed to shipping, cruise ship or ferry traffic. However, larger ships are far less likely to detect the physical impact of a collision than smaller vessels, and this could account for the lack of reported strikes. Collisions with large vessels may be more common than reported, especially in areas where larger vessel traffic is concentrated.
Despite the fact that collisions may only affect a small proportion of the overall Humpback Whale population, vessel strikes may be a cause for concern for some local and seasonal areas of high ship traffic.. In B.C., areas of high probability of humpback-vessel interaction include Johnstone Strait off northeast Vancouver Island, Juan de Fuca Strait off southwest Vancouver Island, Dixon Entrance and the “Inside Passage” off the northern B.C. mainland which include portions of two of the identified critical habitat areas..
The JRP also said
As the Panel has mentioned previously during the hearing, the later in the joint review process that new evidence is sought to be filed the greater the likelihood of the prejudice to parties. The Panel is of the view that permitting the Recovery Strategy to be filed at this late stage in the hearing process would be prejudicial to the joint review process.
Weir’s submission to the JRP did not mention an academic study published on September 11, 2013, that also identified Gil Island as critical humpback habitat.