SOURCE: Hakai Magazine

DATE: February 3, 2020

SNIP: The fjords that etch out British Columbia’s central coast are deep, cold, and mostly very quiet—the perfect habitat for whales. The territory of the Gitga’at First Nation, situated around Douglas Channel, is home to the country’s highest concentration of humpback and fin whales, two distinct populations of killer whales, as well as Pacific white-sided dolphins, Dall’s porpoises, and more. “Humpback and fin whales think they have found heaven,” says Janie Wray, CEO of the nonprofit North Coast Cetacean Society (NCCS). “It’s one of the quietest places around.”

But this oasis of calm is under threat. In 2018, work began on a CAN $40-billion liquefied natural gas (LNG) facility in Kitimat, at the head of the Douglas Channel. Once operational, the plant will export 18 million tonnes of LNG every year. It’s one of more than a dozen LNG export projects under development in the region as Canada bids to establish itself as a major supplier to Asia.

Sixteen Indigenous nations signed off on the Kitimat facility and its pipeline, though not without controversy. Because natural gas evaporates when spilled, it is seen as a less contentious product than oil to transport through their territories.

Currently, a large ship passes through Douglas Channel once every two or three days. But a fleet of carriers will be needed to transport the fuel from the facility to markets in Asia. Eric Keen, codirector of science at NCCS,* estimates that the Kitimat facility will add 1,500 transits every year—an average of four extra trips per day. Traffic from small recreational vessels such as fishing boats is also expected to rise with the influx of new workers.

This pending surge in marine traffic threatens the region’s wildlife with noise and pollution. High on the list of concerns is the risk of deadly collisions. Fin whales in particular are at high risk because they spend a lot of time near the surface. Models developed by NCCS predict the frequency of collisions with fin whales could increase sevenfold.

Studies on the impacts of marine traffic on cetaceans understandably focus on established shipping routes. But for Douglas Channel, researchers are hoping to develop mitigation strategies before the LNG starts to flow.

“The whales have decided this place is important,” says Keen. “It’s one of the last sanctuaries for them on an extremely busy coastline.”