Michael Patrick O'Neill / Alamy
Michael Patrick O'Neill / Alamy

Big mammals vs. Big Oil: New pipeline puts humpback whales at risk

Canada says humpback whales aren’t endangered, which allows a proposed oil pipeline to cut across their feeding grounds

In a deep fjord in British Columbia called the Douglas Channel, where the Kitimat River pours runs of Chinook salmon into the Pacific Ocean, fishermen see singing humpback whales fling themselves into the air.

These barnacled, 40-ton whales with long, ridged flippers were harpooned to the brink of extinction in the 1900s. Only through intense conservation efforts have they found safety in ancient migration routes. Mothers birth a single calf in tropical seas and fast for months as it nurses, before migrating thousands of miles up to the North Pacific. There, in enclaves like the Douglas Channel — a critical feeding ground — the whales nourish themselves on krill.

“They’re amazingly beautiful; they’ll knock your socks off,” says Tracey John Hittel, a fishing lodge owner in Kitimat, a town on the channel. Hittel takes guests to see the whales in a 30-foot fishing boat. “They’ll come so close you can see their eye right against yours,” he says.

Now the humpbacks are the flashpoint of an environmental battle. Environmentalists cried foul last month when the Canadian government stripped the whales of protections under its Species at Risk Act (SARA), Canada’s equivalent of the U.S. Endangered Species Act. Stephen Harper’s administration downgraded the status of humpbacks from “threatened” to “species of special concern.” To add to the problem, many fear that a massive pipeline, poised to pump a half-million barrels of crude oil a day into tanker ships in the Douglas Channel, is on the verge of being approved. The Northern Gateway Pipeline, similar to another pipeline roiling politics in the United States, the Keystone XL, would affect the whales’ feeding grounds. An announcement on Northern Gateway is expected in June from Prime Minister Harper.

“The Harper government is dismantling environmental protections in order to promote the extraction and transportation of the world’s dirtiest oil,” says Michael Byers, a political science professor at the University of British Columbia. “The downgrading of humpback whales is part of this.”

But the whale decision has made curious allies of Harper, a booster of pipelines and formerly an accountant for Imperial Oil in Alberta, and Canada’s top marine biologists. 

$8B pipe, 2,000 whales

Humpback numbers before industrial whaling proliferated in the 19th century are unknown, but in the 20th century alone, whalers killed some 200,000 of them. By 1966, scientists estimated there remained fewer than 5,000 animals. The same year, to save them from extinction, the International Whaling Commission banned commercial hunting. Canada joined the ban in 1972.

SARA, Canada’s endangered species law, mandates that for any species listed as “endangered” or “threatened,” the government must identify “critical habitat.” These habitats are breeding or feeding grounds so vital to a species’ survival that industrial activity, such as shipping, must be strictly regulated.

Last year, the Canadian government announced four areas of humpback critical habitat — including the mouth of the Douglas Channel, which is a crucial feeding ground for the whales. 

Douglas Channel, a proposed terminus for an oil pipeline in the Enbridge Northern Gateway Project, in Kitimat, British Columbia.
Darryl Dyck / Canadian Press / AP

This presented a problem for Enbridge Inc., Canada’s largest exporter of crude oil, which in 2005 had announced its intentions to build a 730-mile, $8 billion pipeline to the Pacific Ocean, culminating in the town of Kitimat on the Douglas Channel. The company plans to run 220 oil tankers per year to Kitimat.

“It was a roadblock,” says Linda Nowlan, a conservation director in British Columbia for the World Wildlife Fund. “The Enbridge Northern Gateway project was on a collision course with the law.”

Meanwhile, thanks to SARA, the humpback population in British Columbia has rebounded. Scientists have estimated that there are more than 2,000 humpbacks there, more than enough for their genetic diversity to protect them from catastrophe. The annual population growth rate is a healthy 4 percent, and scientists now think that there are between 18,000 and 22,000 whales in the Northern Pacific, the highest number in decades.

Despite a 2011 recommendation from the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) that humpbacks be downgraded from “threatened” to “species of special concern” — which meant the whales would lose the special habitat protection afforded by the law — the government didn’t act. It was only in April this year, six months after it became apparent that the designation of the Douglas Channel as a critical habitat for the humpback could preclude Enbridge’s pipeline plans, that the government acted on COSEWIC’s advice.

There is a whole pile of scientists being forced to support a government [whose] pretty much every other environmental decision we disagree with. It’s such an irony.

Jane Watson

former member, COSEWIC

“It happened with lightning speed,” says Karen Wristen, executive director of Living Oceans, a British Columbia-based environmental group. “The government moves at a glacial pace usually.”

Nowlan agrees. “Multiple years are more the norm for the government to respond,” she says.

But Jane Watson, a biology professor at Vancouver Island University and former COSEWIC member, says that though she has often disagreed with Prime Minister Harper, he did right by the humpbacks.

“There is a whole pile of scientists being forced to support a government [whose] pretty much every other environmental decision we disagree with,” she says. “It’s such an irony.”

Grass-roots opposition

The whale controversy simmered while grassroots opposition to the Northern Gateway Pipeline sparked. In April, the small town of Kitimat, a center for aluminum smelting, held a non-binding vote on the Northern Gateway Pipeline. It failed 58 percent to 42 percent.

“It’s not like we’re doing this on a whim; we’re trying to protect the identity and the culture of a people — a spill would be catastrophic to the Gitga’at way of life,” says Cameron Hill, 45, a council member for the Hartley Bay First Nations community, at the mouth of the Douglas Channel.

That fear is acute this spring, he says, because it marks the 25th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez spill, about 700 miles north, in Alaska’s Prince William Sound. Parts of that shore are still slick with oil. As Alaska officials seek more oil revenue, the state petitioned the U.S. government in February to remove humpbacks from the endangered species list, a move that would make it easier for oil companies to drill exploratory wells in arctic seas.   

A protester holds up an orca-shaped sign during a demonstration against the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline, in Vancouver, May 10, 2014.
Darryl Dyck / Canadian Press / AP

Chris Genovali, executive director of the Raincoast Conservation Foundation, based in British Columbia, says that with Douglas Channel tanker traffic poised to triple, whales could be hurt by noise pollution, or smashed by ships.

A spokesman for Enbridge says the company has no comment. Enbridge has previously said that the pipeline would create more than 500 long-term jobs, and more than 3,000 during construction. According to its website, it would slow its tankers as they crossed the Douglas Channel.

Meanwhile, the government is under pressure from industrialists who feel Canada has been treated unfairly by the United States. Though the largest importer of Canadian oil, for years the U.S. has delayed approval of the Keystone XL pipeline, which would siphon tar sands oil to the Gulf of Mexico, amid protests from environmentalists, ranchers and Native Americans. James Coleman, a professor of business and law at the University of Calgary, says investor hopes are high that Enbridge’s Northern Gateway Pipeline will outflank Keystone.

“Because of Keystone, there’s a strong sense in Canada that the only solution is to have different markets,” Coleman says. “But it has raised the stakes for environmentalists too, because the argument from industry is that the oil is going to get to market one way or another, and environmentalists are saying, ‘Maybe we can block all of these.’”

Other endangered species

Canada is home to more than 160 other species listed as “endangered” and “threatened.” Most still have no designated critical habitat. Scientists say this is because they are tasked with assessing rare animals, across thousands of miles of harsh terrains, with little money. Despite their disinclination to let the designation of a species be used as a pawn in a fight between environmentalists and developers, many scientists now fear that a bad precedent has been set. With eyes on Northern Gateway, some environmental groups sued the government to identify critical habitat, and this drew disproportionate concern to humpbacks just in the Douglas Channel.

“Some people have this image of this one channel as the key to survival of all life on the planet. Environmental groups are duping the public,” says Andrew Trites, director of the Marine Mammal Research Unit at the University of British Columbia and a former member of COSEWIC. “Let’s say every whale in the Douglas Channel is run over; you would probably never even notice it in terms of the recovery of whales on this coast.”

Douglas Channel is also home to sea otters.
Michael Patrick O'Neill / Alamy

But humpbacks are not the only species of special concern there. Douglas Channel is also home to sea otters. And for a population of killer whales, listed as “threatened,” the mouth of the channel is classified as “potential critical habitat.”

The second-largest animal on earth lives there too, the fin whale. Averaging 65 feet long, it has been listed in Canada as “threatened” since 2006, but there has been no identification of its critical habitat to date.

While the delay in fin whales’ habitat designation has not yet been challenged in court, scientists in the Douglas Channel have documented something extraordinary about the behemoths, usually found in the deepest water, far out past the continental shelf.

“The mouth of the Douglas Channel is one of the few places in the world where fin whales come close to shore,” says marine scientist Hussein Alidina, of the World Wildlife Fund in Canada. “Clearly it has to do with feeding.”

Updated: This article had incorrectly identified Hussein Alidina as a whale biologist.

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