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Counting the Ways the Gateway Pacific Terminal Could Harm Orcas

January 2013

Coal Side Story

Counting the Ways the Gateway Pacific Terminal Could Harm Orcas

by Howard Garrett

Howard Garrett has a degree in sociology and began working with the Center for Whale Research in 1981. In 1996, he wrote “Orcas In Our Midst,” a booklet oriented toward middle-school students. Volume 2 of “Orcas In Our Midst” was published in 2005. Volume 3, Residents and Transients – How Did That Happen? was published in 2011. He also wrote the entry under “Animal Culture” for the Encyclopedia of Animal Behavior (Greenwood Publishing Group, 2005); and a chapter about the rescue of the solitary orca A73 (Springer), in Between Species. Howard Garrett co-founded Orca Network in November 2001 with Susan Berta.

If the Gateway Pacific Terminal is permitted to ship massive amounts of coal, the endangered Southern Resident orcas will inevitably suffer and their survival will be further threatened. Here are but a few of the potential degradations to their critical habitat:

Increased Noise From Ships: Imagine living in seawater, a murky, incompressible substance. You can’t see very far to find your food or your friends and relatives, but sound travels more than four times faster and with far more force than through the air. Your survival depends on hearing your family’s calls and your own echolocation clicks bouncing back from fish. But you can’t hear those sounds when gigantic, noisy cargo ships consistently traverse the sea, thundering and echoing above the cavernous canyons and fjords that you and your family call home. The Gateway Terminal would add more than 450 annual round trips by massive, heavily loaded ships with clackety engines and squeaky propeller shafts.

More Invasive Species: Orcas need a healthy, productive marine food web to support their prey. For Southern Residents, that’s almost entirely Chinook salmon which forage throughout the Salish Sea as juveniles, head out to the open Pacific as adults, and eventually return to their rivers of origin to spawn.

Bulk cargo ships sailing across the Pacific to Washington state — three football fields long and as deep as a seven-story building — will be filled with bilge water from Asia to stabilize the ships. That water will contain the eggs and larvae of species native to Asian waters. Inevitably, some bilge water will be discharged into the Salish Sea to make room for the coal. It’s like a massive transplant operation importing untold exotic marine life into our waters, resulting in certain disruptions to the delicately balanced ecosystem where the orcas live.

Coal Dust and Spillage: Routine coal dust and spillage occurring in high seas will add a suite of chemicals and dirty coal pollutants to Salish Sea waters, inhibiting biological growth across the spectrum of marine life, including orcas.

Degradation of Herring Habitat: The distinct species of late-spawning herring found only in the vicinity of Cherry Point have dwindled to record low numbers. That critical habitat will be further polluted during loading operations. Salmon need these herring, and orcas need those salmon.

Increased Risk of Collisions and Catastrophic Spills: An ecological risk assessment commissioned by the Washington Department of Natural Resources concluded that significant increases of vessel traffic in our waters would “inevitably increase the risk of an oil spill.” And according to NOAA, an oil spill poses the greatest threat to the Southern Residents.

Alarmingly, the single-hulled cargo ships that would service the coal port require no tugboat escort, despite having the worst safety record of all seagoing vessels. Coal is a cheap commodity, and these cargo ships are often operated by low-paid, second-rate crews.

Should a coal laden vessel run aground, or worse, collide with an oil tanker, thousands of tons of heavy bunker and diesel fuel, and possibly oil, would spill into the inland sea. If large numbers of orcas are in the nearby vicinity, this could spell a catastrophic, extinction level event.

Global Warming: Let’s get real. Global warming is happening much faster than predicted. And 97 percent of climate scientists agree that it is man-made.

Here’s a sure-fire way to make our one and only planet heat up even faster: Strip-mine coal in the American west, load it onto mile-long, 125-car trains that release tons of dust and diesel smoke along 1,100 miles of track to west coast ports. Then pile it into bulk cargo ships burning thousands of tons of heavy fuel, to be combusted for electricity while emitting millions of tons of greenhouse gases, every year. As our globe gets hotter, rivers and streams will warm and dry up, and salmon will die. At the same time, ocean acidification reduces food for salmon. When salmon become scarce, the Southern Resident orcas die off.

Considering these impacts both individually or how they may act in combination, the Gateway Pacific Terminal project would likely expedite the demise of the Southern Resident orcas.

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