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World’s orca experts demand noise reduction in Salish Sea

The number of Salish Sea orcas off the Southern B.C. coast has been dwindling for 15 years without a recovery plan from the federal government. In March, when the final plan was released, it fell short, containing only weak recommendations to save this group of whales teetering on the edge of survival.    

Without some real changes in their critical habitat, there’s a very real possibility that these orcas could disappear altogether.

A southern resident Killer whale (Orcinus orca) leaping out of the waters of Haro Strait, British Columbia

A southern resident Killer whale (Orcinus orca) leaping out of the waters of Haro Strait, British Columbia

WWF-Canada is determined not to let that happen. Nor are the marine scientists who have made orcas their life’s work. After the release of the final recovery plan, 20 marine scientists came together to pen a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and federal ministers of Fisheries, Environment and Transport calling on Ottawa to compel a reduction in shipping noise in the Salish Sea by at least three decibels in the next 10 years, with a further reduction by 10 dB in the next 30 years.

Southern Resident Killer Whales, as the orcas of the Salish Sea are known, now number just 78 and are considered the most endangered group of marine mammals in Canada. They are struggling as their preferred food, Chinook salmon, is in decline, and they are threatened by underwater noise, primarily from shipping around the busy Port of Vancouver. When it’s noisy under the water, orcas find it hard to communicate, navigate and find food.

The scientists who signed the letter, which you can read here, all have specific expertise in endangered Southern Resident Killer Whales, or work on the effects of underwater noise on ocean wildlife. They point out that the global target of a 3 dB reduction in 10 years isn’t enough for the Salish Sea, given how degraded this critical habitat already is. These experts are calling for an even stricter target.  

A 3 dB reduction may not sound like much, and on land, it would be a relatively minor reduction. But sound moves very differently under water; implementing a 3 dB reduction will make a big difference. Considering that shipping traffic is projected to increase significantly in the Salish Sea over the next decade, and noise pollution is expected to increase along with it, we have to act now if we hope to stop and even reverse this trend.

© Natalie Bowes / WWF-Canada Three orcas of the Salish Sea (Orcinus orca) moving through the waters at Active Pass, British Columbia

© Natalie Bowes / WWF-Canada Three orcas of the Salish Sea (Orcinus orca) moving through the waters at Active Pass, British Columbia

It’s an achievable goal, but one that will require design and engineering solutions, as well as mandatory speed limits for ships in the orcas’ critical habitat. It would bring Canada in line with international recommendations for reductions in ocean noise. And most importantly, quieting the oceans would create a key condition for a successful orca recovery.

Time is running out for the orcas of the Salish Sea. Despite releasing a weak recovery plan, the federal government still has a chance to take action to save this species.

Twenty scientists are making the case that a 3 dB reduction in ocean noise is the very least we have to do. We should listen.