Marine Habitat

What’s New in the Strait of Georgia?

  • In May 2011 a small group of transient killer whales, including a young calf, made a rare visit to Vancouver’s inner harbour, where they breached and tail-slapped off Stanley Park. Transients eat marine mammals, and instead of living in family-based pods like resident killer whales they form loose, short-term associations. Scientists estimate that there are about 250 on the west coast.
  • South of the border, the US government has toughened its regulations to protect killer whales. Vessels can no longer approach closer than 180 metres and must stay at least 365 metres out from the path of oncoming whales. The rules apply to all boats, including kayaks, but exempt commercial fishing boats and container ships and tankers travelling in established fishing lanes. In Canada, vessels must stay at least 100 metres away from killer whales or risk stiff fines and jail time. Southern resident killer whales are an endangered species with their population currently estimated at just 86 individuals.
  • In April the federal government cancelled its plan to further de-staff lighthouses. The decision is good news for west coast residents, fishermen, boaters, pilots and mariners who want lightkeepers to remain because of the critical role they play in marine safety for coastal communities. Since 1970, the number of staffed lighthouses in Canada has decreased from 264 to just 50 (27 of which are in BC).
  • Thousands of fish, including juvenile salmon, were killed when a drunk driver flipped a tanker-truck on the Malahat Highway in April. In excess of 40,000 litres of gas and 3000 litres of diesel poured into the Goldstream River, necessitating removal of contaminated soil and dead fish, a shellfish closure in Saanich Inlet and an ongoing cleanup. The timing was disastrous in terms of salmon’s life cycle, though the full impacts won’t be known until 2014, when the current run of chum salmon are due to return. Goldstream’s ecosystem could take years to recover.
  • In March a chlorine leak occurred at Canexus Chemicals on Burrard Inlet. The North Vancouver plant manufactures chlorine, and is situated in a major urban centre and high risk earthquake zone. Metro Vancouver Port Authority has extended Canexus’ lease on the property until 2032. Once its current expansion is completed it could produce close to 200,000 tonnes of chlorine per year (an estimated 2,400 rail cars). According to US Navy research, chlorine from a 90-ton railcar could injure or kill 100,000 people. Chlorine is used in the pulp and paper industry and household cleaners and plastics. 

  • There has been a sharp increase in the past five years in the number of oil tankers travelling out of Burrard Inlet. Kinder Morgan has indicated an interest in more than doubling the capacity of its terminal – which would make the volume of oil 30% higher than the amount proposed by Enbridge in its controversial plan for BC’s north coast. The Islands Trust and  San Juan County have put the risk of oil spills and maritime safety on their priority list for 2011. They’ve called on the US and Canadian governments to take action for prevention and response in the transboundary waters, including reviewing tug escorts for tankers, emergency towing and spill response. 

  • In January 2011 a Liberian-registered cargo ship had an onboard spill of radioactive uranium concentrate (“yellowcake”) when some of its containers shifted in heavy seas off the coast; it was forced to return to the Strait, where it anchored off Ladysmith for a few days before travelling to Vancouver for food and fuel. The spill was contained within the ship and according to officials posed no threat to the crew, public or environment. Approximately 500 vessels a year that leave Canada carrying uranium - just one of the many types of hazardous materials that are transported through our waters on a regular basis.
  • In December 2010 the Standing Senate Committee on Fisheries and Oceans recommended that Ottawa halt its plan to further de-staff lighthouses, at least for now. The Committee heard overwhelming public support for staffed lighthouses and concluded that any future decisions need to be made on a case-by-case basis, and recommended a comprehensive cost-benefit analysis on the full range of services provided by lightkeepers. 

     

Highlights from Past News:

  • Beginning April 21, 2010, traces of fuel and crude oil were observed to be leaking into the ocean daily from Chevron’s refinery on Burrard Inlet. The company noticed the leak in a routine inspection and set up soaker pads and absorbent booms to prevent the contaminants from spreading in the Inlet. Chevron has vowed to stop the leak, but as of mid-June had still not been able to pinpoint its source.
  • Grey whales made some unusual appearances in the spring of 2010. In May one was seen feeding near Squamish for a couple of weeks, and another one thrilled Vancouver residents by entering False Creek, making for a great lunch time show for the crowds on shore. When the 16-metre whale briefly entered the inner part of the Creek, officials temporarily shut down marine traffic east of the Cambie Bridge. The whale spent two days feeding around Vancouver’s shores.
  • In a rare occurrence, about 150 Pacific white-sided dolphins were seen feeding on herring in Howe Sound for about two weeks in the spring of 2010.
  • The southern resident killer whales have recently had a baby boom—great news for the endangered animals! The three pods gave birth to five new calves in 2009, and a sixth was spotted in January 2010. Although the young whales have many challenges ahead (for example, finding enough Chinook salmon to nourish them), and about 50% of killer whale calves die in their first year, researchers believe they are all still alive, so far. The births bring their population up to 88 individuals.
  • Metro Vancouver is building a sustainability academy focused on sewage treatment and resource recovery, in partnership with UBC and with federal and provincial support. The Annacis Centre of Excellence (dubbed "Poop U." by the media), to be located at the Annacis Island wastewater treatment plant, will explore technologies for using human waste as a resource while reducing the impacts of sewage discharges and fighting climate change. 
  • BC Ferries plans to phase out its practice of dumping sewage overboard before new federal regulations come into force in 2012. Onboard treatment plants are already installed on most of its ferries, but breakdowns occur, so the corporation plans to build pumpouts at a number of its terminals, with the sewage going to local treatment plants. The federal government plans to contribute $7.5 million for the upgrades.
  • South of the border, the US government is proposing new rules to protect endangered southern resident killer whales. These include a half-mile exclusion zone for some marine traffic along the west side of San Juan Island. If the rules are adopted, sports fishermen will no longer be able to fish for Chinook salmon in the zone from May through September.
  • Spring 2009 saw a strong herring spawn along the BC coast. On Saltspring Island, it was reported as the largest in living memory, and in Vancouver, herring spawned in False Creek for the first time in about a century—a success story for local habitat restoration and shoreline rehabilitation efforts.
  • A provincial environmental assessment is underway for a proposal to ship jet fuel in tankers along the south arm of the Fraser River to an offloading terminal and then through a 15-km pipeline to the Vancouver International Airport. Proponents argue this would negate the current need for 25 to 35 tanker truck movements per day. The tankers would pass through the Strait of Georgia and alongside the Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary. Local residents worry that a fuel spill into the Fraser estuary would devastate wildlife and sensitive marshes.

  • Three new orca calves were spotted in the spring of 2009, bringing the total population of the endangered southern resident pods to 86. One of the calves was born to L pod and the other two to J pod.

  • In the US, the National Marine Fisheries Service has proposed Endangered Species Act listing for three species of rockfish found in the Strait of Georgia and Puget Sound: canary rockfish, yelloweye (in our region, commonly called "red snapper") and bocaccio. Rockfish are long-lived (yelloweye have reached over 140 years), maturing and reproducing slowly. They are very vulnerable to fishing pressures and do not survive catch and release; populations have also likely been impacted by destruction of eelgrass beds and pollution. A final decision will come within a year.
  • In January 2009, a young elephant seal spent several days in a roadside ditch in Saanich, returning to the ocean after moulting, and a baby elephant seal was born at Race Rocks, possibly the most northerly birth of the species ever recorded. In November 2008 a dead male elephant seal, weighing 2700 kg was found on a beach in Nanaimo. The sightings are unusual, as the huge mammal normally breeds in California and makes semi-annual migrations to Alaska, spending 80% of its time near the sea bottom, searching for food.
  • A new study shows that the high level of toxic contaminants in southern resident killer whales is coming from Chinook salmon, with at least 97% originating from the salmon’s time at sea. The study found that Chinook in the whales’ summer feeding grounds around Puget Sound are much more contaminated than more northerly salmon, and also have a lower fat content—meaning southern residents must consume much more salmon than the northern resident pods. This helps to explain why southern residents are now the most contaminated wildlife on earth, with 6.6 times more toxins than their northern counterparts.

  • 2008 was the worst year on record for blue heron populations in the Lower Mainland. For every two nests, only about one chick survived to leave—half what it had been over the previous decade. From 80 to 90% of the population of the Pacific Great Blue Heron lives in Georgia Strait. Lower Mainland populations are particularly important, as migrations from the mainland have helped the survival of Vancouver Island heron colonies, which have done poorly otherwise. Scientists believe a primary cause may be the increased bald eagle population, as the raptors feed on heron eggs, chicks and sometimes adult herons. Other likely factors are likely human disturbances and a loss of wetlands. 

  • In September 2008 the federal government announced it would commit another $10 million to expand the Gulf Islands National Park Reserve. The new commitment will increase the land acquisition fund to $20 million.

  • In April 2008, 165 acres (almost 10%) of the Squamish Estuary was designated by the Province as a new Wildlife Management Area (WMA)—protection 25 years in the making. The Estuary includes extensive marsh, mudflat and intertidal drainage channels. It supports a rich diversity of marine, aquatic and terrestrial wildlife (including chum, chinook, coho and pink salmon) and is important for fisheries, wildlife viewing, hunting, boating, windsurfing and hiking. Local environmentalists are working to see the WMA expanded.
  • The BC provincial court ordered a Hong Kong company to pay a penalty of $80,000 in November 2007 as a result of a 2006 spill from one of its bulk carriers, of over 7,500 litres of oil into Vancouver Harbour. The company was charged with unlawfully discharging a pollutant into Canadian waters, a violation of the Canada Shipping Act. The financial penalty included a fine of $5,000 along with $75,000 toward research, conservation and protection of migratory bird habitat in the Georgia Basin.
  • In December 2007, several GSA members were among the lucky few who have spotted a humpback whale in Georgia Strait in recent times—a rare occurrence. One was spotted just off South Pender Island and the other near Gabriola Island.

  • For the first time in 93 years, sockeye salmon returned to the Coquitlam River in 2007, and by early summer 2008, they could be spawning in Coquitlam Lake (as they did prior to 1914, when a dam was built to supply power to the Lower Mainland). For now, any returning salmon will be trapped by volunteers and trucked to the lake in tanks, but if the run grows larger in future, a fish ladder may be constructed.

  • In August 2007 the Province of BC and The Land Conservancy announced the purchase of Gerald Island, off Nanoose Bay, to become a marine park. The 11.65-hectare island is part of the Ballenas-Winchelsea Archipelago, a rocky ecosystem which is home to sea lions, bald eagles and various other marine species. The province is considering establishing a marine park in the Archipelago, and Gerald Island is seen as a critical step towards this goal.
  • In 2007 Parks Canada agreed to expand the area under consideration for its Southern Strait of Georgia National Marine Conservation Area Reserve to include all of the waters around the Crofton pulp mill, Chemainus, Thetis Island and Ladysmith—areas that had been omitted from consideration previously. Parks Canada is aiming to complete its public consultation by next year and create the NMCA Reserve by 2009 or 2010.
  • Oops! Between May and July 2007, contractors for the Vancouver Port Authority’s Deltaport expansion mistakenly dumped 22,000 tonnes of dredge material (over 20 barge trips’ worth) in US waters, one km away from the site approved by Environment Canada. The mistake came to light when BC Transmission Corp. discovered that the material had landed on and damaged one of its electrical power cables to Vancouver Island. The incident is being investigated by Environment Canada, the Vancouver Port Authority, Fisheries and Oceans and US authorities. The Port has said that there will be no more ocean disposal by barge until Environment Canada has approved the contractor’s plan for addressing the cause of the error.
  • Fisheries & Oceans have implemented 164 Rockfish Conservation Areas (RCAs) coastwide, in which fishing impacting on rockfish or lingcod (including those resulting in bycatch of these species) are prohibited. The RCAs include 86 in the Strait of Georgia and its northern reaches (from Wellbourne Pass to Sidney). You can view them at www.pac.dfo-mpo.gc.ca/recfish/Restricted_Areas/rca_e.htm
  • In April 2007 BC's Environment Minister introduced legislation to establish new parks and conservancies, including about 3400 hectares of marine foreshore. Of the 41 new conservancies, six are in the northern Georgia Strait/Johnstone Strait area, including about 3000 hectares in Estero Basin and 1500 hectares of the Phillips Estuary, both significant ecological areas. The legislation also includes expansion to existing protected areas including some in Howe Sound, Indian Arm, Saanich Inlet and Sonora and Saltspring Islands.
  • Vancouver Airport is considering three options for expansion in its draft 20-year plan, including a $1.2-billion runway that would jut four kilometres into Georgia Strait, raising concerns about impacts on fish and wildlife habitat on Sturgeon Bank and noise pollution for Richmond.