WASHINGTON: The Port of Vancouver is asking ships this summer to voluntarily slow to 11 knots — up to about a 40-per-cent reduction — when transiting Haro Strait to reduce noise levels for endangered, southern-resident killer whales. “I’d say it’s a first in the world, a project of this scale,” Orla Robinson, manager of the port’s Enhancing Cetacean Habitat and Observation (ECHO) program, said in an interview Wednesday. “We’re trying to understand the relationship between slower vessel speeds, underwater noise levels and the effects on the whales.” In other locales, including San Francisco, ships are asked to reduce their speeds to reduce the chance of striking whales. Haro Strait is located between Victoria and Washington state’s San Juan Island and is critical habitat for the killer whales, which are routinely found there in summer feeding on seasonal salmon runs. Just 78 southern residents are thought to exist in the shared waters of the Salish Sea. Researchers consider them at-risk from depleted runs of chinook salmon — their favourite prey — as well as pollutants such as banned-but-long-lasting PCBs and both the physical presence of vessels and their underwater sounds.
At the same time, numerous initiatives stand to significantly increase the number of ships entering the port. The Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion approved by the federal government would result in a seven-fold increase in oil tankers. And the planned, $2-billion-plus container expansion at Roberts Bank in South Delta, the subject of an ongoing federal environmental review, would add another 2.4 million units of container capacity per year. In the pilot study, the port is asking commercial ships and even recreational boats to reduce their speed to 11 knots (20 km/h) in Haro Strait between Discovery and Henry islands from Aug. 7-Oct. 6. Container ships and cruise vessels typically travel at closer to 18 knots (33 km/h) through Haro Strait.
Slowing to 11 knots could result in delays of 30 to 60 minutes, depending on vessel type and tidal currents. The port urges inbound vessels to adjust their planned arrival time to minimize potential impacts to their scheduled berth or anchorage arrival times. The program will use the shipping industry’s Automated Identification System to monitor commercial-vessel participation rates, and hydrophones to assess the impact of reducing vessel speed on underwater noise. Potential financial and operational impacts to the shipping industry will also be evaluated. The study results should be available in early 2018. More than 30 companies so far have agreed to participate in the pilot program “where operationally and economically feasible, on a transit-by-transit basis.”
The port has worked with an industry committee for the past year getting buy-in on the pilot program. “This is a research program on a very large scale,” Robinson said. “It could not take place without industry support and participation.” Supportive companies include cruise lines such as Carnival and Celebrity, global shipping firms such as COSCO and Maersk, along with Washington State Ferries and B.C. Coast Pilots. Robert Lewis-Manning, president of the B.C. Chamber of Shipping, said at least 50 per cent of the shipping industry has bought into the program in principle to date. “If you’d asked me a year ago, there would have been some skepticism,” he said. “As shipping companies have learned more about the ecological challenges, the more they have pitched in to participate. We’re seeing healthy support now. People are supportive of getting the data.” The port’s ECHO program is an initiative aimed at better understanding and managing the impact of shipping activities on at-risk whales throughout B.C.’s South Coast.