As Captain Aaron Nagler sets out onto the water, his boat navigates through a harbour full of vessels, from kayaks and sea ferries to sailing yachts.
Past the waters around Granville Island, in the heart of Vancouver, Nagler cruises by much larger ships hauling grain and coal, and another vessel filled with shipping containers. Beyond all the traffic, the horizon opens up as the engine pushes the boat further away from the coast.
“There have been a number of recent reports from this afternoon of a certain black and white species up in Howe Sound,” Nagler says over the speakers. “Just keep a lookout on all sides, and if anything catches your eye, go ahead and let us know.”
About an hour after departing the harbour, he peers into the distance, transfixed by something out on the open water. Without diverting his glance, he grabs the binoculars by his side.
Nagler has found what his 67 passengers were looking for. Whales.
Passengers scramble to one side of the Prince of Whales Whale Watching boat and begin to snap pictures and videos.
These killer whales are iconic animals people travel around the world to see, and they’re a big part of Indigenous culture. They are also part of a complex — and intense — discussion about the future of the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion.
Construction of the pipeline is currently limited to its West Coast terminals, but activity should ramp up in and around Edmonton next month. The expansion is expected to be completed by mid-2022, and once finished, it will transport oil and other petroleum products from Edmonton to the Vancouver area.
Whichever federal party forms government after next month’s election will have to handle the project, which is estimated to cost between $7.4 billion and $9.3 billion to construct. The next government will also have to navigate some choppy waters, weighing issues such as economic growth, climate change, environmental protection and Indigenous rights.
Western Canada relies heavily on B.C.’s ports. In Vancouver, the talk is largely focused on what an increase in oil tankers might mean for the ocean, the shipping industry and the killer whales and other marine life.
But the fact is, regardless of whether the Trans Mountain expansion pipeline is built, just about every type of vessel is increasing in numbers here — including whale-watching boats.
Increased tanker traffic
On this trip, Nagler and his passengers see an adult male and female killer whale, along with two young whales. These are transient killer whales, which come to the surface for about 30 seconds every five minutes or so.
They are different from southern resident killer whales, which are most often discussed in connection with the Trans Mountain expansion. One of the differences between the species is that the southern resident killer whales only eat salmon, while transient killer whales have a diverse diet. The southern resident killer whales have been called an endangered population.
Nagler’s boat stays between 200 and 400 metres away from this particular pod.
“Occasionally, boats will get too close to whales. It does happen, I’ve done it myself,” said Nagler. “It’s difficult to track animals that disappear underwater and come up somewhere else. They can quite often change direction. That’s why you have to keep your speed down and be as cautious as possible.”
While the whale-watching industry hasn’t always had the best reputation for looking out for the animals, Nagler recounts stories of people on jet skis getting right up to the killer whales.
“You can get off a plane in Vancouver at YVR [the international airport] and be harassing a killer whale within an hour and a half,” he said.
While there can be finger-pointing about which type of vessels cause the most harm, it’s not the whale-watching boats or jet skis attracting the most attention in recent years. It’s oil tankers.
Similar to how the Keystone XL pipeline has been a lightning rod for the climate change debate in the U.S., the Trans Mountain expansion has galvanized those concerned about the killer whales and other marine life.
The Trans Mountain expansion is expected to result in a seven-fold increase in the number of oil tankers traveling through the waters around Vancouver and Victoria as they transport oil to California, China and other foreign buyers.
‘Destruction of the killer whale’
When the National Energy Board (NEB) renewed its approval of the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion in February, it acknowledged an increase in marine vessels would further contribute to effects that have jeopardized the recovery of the southern resident killer whales.
“Indigenous people are not going to stand idly by and watch the destruction of the killer whale populations along the West Coast of British Columbia,” said Grand Chief Stewart Phillip with the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, after the NEB’s report was issued.
Phillip said it’s “inconceivable” that “economic interests are more important than the iconic killer whale population and everything that represents for Indigenous peoples.” (The Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, the Squamish Nation and the Tsleil-Waututh Nation were unavailable for comment for this story.)
The NEB introduced 16 new recommendations designed to better protect marine life on the B.C. coast, such as possible slowdowns in certain shipping routes and noise reduction on ferries. The recommendations are for all marine vessels, since the NEB said there would be little effect if the measures only applied to tankers from the Trans Mountain project.
The NEB had considered other measures, such as limiting the number of whale-watching boats and the amount of time they spend on the water.
Trans Mountain has said it typically loads five tankers per month, but the expanded system would require about 34 tankers per month. Trans Mountain tanker traffic would increase from 1.1 per cent of total marine traffic volume now in the Juan de Fuca Strait — which stretches from Victoria to the outlet of the Pacific Ocean — to 6.6 per cent.
In total, about 18,500 vessels traveled in the Juan de Fuca Strait in 2012, according to figures Trans Mountain supplied to the federal government.
‘It’s a working harbour’
The Trans Mountain pipeline expansion has drawn more attention to marine traffic, said Stewart Muir with Resource Works, a Vancouver-based not-for-profit that advocates for the resource sector.
“If it wasn’t for the Trans Mountain Expansion, we wouldn’t be talking about killer whales the way we are now,” said Muir. “In that sense, it’s a positive, because it has brought about some positive policy steps.”
Walking along the seawall near the cruise ship dock, Muir points out all the activity on the water. There are bulk ships being loaded with sulphur and potash, a boat approaching a grain terminal, a cargo ship filled with containers leaving the port and a seaplane roaring its engine as it begins to take off.
“It’s a working harbour, it’s been the heartbeat of the western Canadian economy since Confederation,” Muir said.
So far this year, the Port of Vancouver is handling a record amount of container volume. The port has experienced about a 3.5 per cent increase in the first half of 2019, which is similar to growth levels over the last decade. Officials expect volume increases at the same rate for the next five years.
The West Coast could run out of space to handle shipments, according to the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority, which is seeking regulatory approval to construct its Roberts Bank complex site south of Vancouver.
“We need these projects, otherwise we will be out of capacity in the early 2020s,” said Peter Xotta, a vice president with the port authority.
Over the last year, the largest cargo increases have been in exporting wheat (22.4 per cent), specialty crops (34.2 per cent) and fertilizer (23.6 per cent). Just about every type of vessel is expected to increase in numbers, including recreational boats, cruise ships, chemical tankers, cargo ships, tugs and passenger vessels.
On the day the NEB’s report was issued in February, the B.C. government announced the addition of 2,700 round trips per year on 10 routes for BC Ferries.
More ships increases the chance of an accident. The tankers carry oil from the bitumen-rich oilsands of northern Alberta, but a variety of other materials, like chemicals and coal, also travel through the port.
The spill concerns are well understood by pilots, who are in charge of navigating large vessels through the waters around Vancouver and Victoria.
Every time there is a new project, terminal or vessel type, the Pacific Pilotage Association is involved in the risk assessment. Pilots are on board every incoming and outgoing tanker for the voyage between Victoria and the Trans Mountain terminal in Burnaby.
“Ever since pilots have been moving tankers on our coast, there has not been one incident on a tanker,” said Brian Young, the director of marine operations for the Pacific Pilotage Association. In terms of overall safety statistics for any type of vessel, he said the organization is “in the 99.96 to 99.67 percentile of completing jobs perfectly.”
Beyond spill concerns, there are worries about noise, strikes and, to a lesser degree, the pollution associated with vessel traffic. These are all significant contributors to the problems facing some of the whale and marine life populations, said Kai Chan, a professor at the University of British Columbia’s Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability.
The animals are “being exposed to multiple stressors, several of which are new, many of which are continuing to escalate due to increasing human activity in the region,” said Chan. “When we have populations like the southern resident killer whales, for example, a population that is endemic to this region and is suffering significantly, imagine increasing a couple of those stressors it’s facing. It’s concerning, for sure.”
Chan said it’s not just about the Trans Mountain expansion. “There are all kinds of other uses of that space of the Salish Sea, of the Georgia Straight, that are taxing these populations.”
Almost every mitigation effort seems to have a drawback or the potential of an unknown side effect.
“Ecosystems are complex,” said Chan. “We often don’t know well enough what will work until we try it.”
Chan had wanted more robust environmental protections for the Trans Mountain expansion project, including a commitment to follow up to make sure the provisions are working as hoped.
He said the attention on the killer whales and other marine life as a result of the proposed pipeline project is positive, but it needs to go further.
“It’s clear people are concerned. But the conversation about what are we willing to let go, what are we willing to put the brakes on, is one that we really do have to have collectively,” he said. “It should not be reduced to a single decision around a single pipeline decision, because it’s a bigger issue than that.”