Oil Spills and Killer Whales

Killer Whale (Orcinus orca) - Photo courtesy The SeaDoc Society

Today, a British Columbia trucking company was found guilty of six pollution charges stemming from spilling oil into Robson Bight, BC, in August of 2007.  This spill was of particular concern to oiled wildlife responders because, according to the article from The Globe and Mail, “…Robson Bight Ecological Reserve (is) a key orca habitat containing unique rocks where the whales rub themselves, just metres from the beach.”

Orca (or killer whales) are typically not considered highly sensitive to the effects of oil, as they rely on a thick blubber layer to stay warm (unlike sea otters or fur seals).  However, shortly after the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989, 23 resident or transient killer whales disappeared from the area (as described in the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council reports), many of which were presumed dead due to the direct effects of oil on the animals.

Because of this, as well as significant concerns for the long-term health of the Southern Resident population in the Puget Sound/Salish Sea region, the Proposed Recovery Plan for this population (begun in 2003 and finalized in 2008) identified oil spills as a primary threat, and recommended the development of strategies to deter killer whales from entering spilled oil as well as a killer whale component to the wildlife branch section of the Northwest Area Contingency Plan.

To help move this critical concern forward, Dr. Joe Gaydos of The SeaDoc Society (another key program of the Wildlife Health Center) and I worked with NOAA Fisheries to conduct a workshop bringing researchers, oil spill responders and stakeholders together to discuss what tools may be effective to deter whales from an oiled area and what resources are available for response.  Interestingly enough, this workshop was held just a few weeks after the Robson Bight spill, therefore there was a great deal of interest and activity in the results of the meeting.

Since this successful meeting, an additional section has been added to the Northwest Area Contingency Plan detailing response activities that should be considered if there are spills which may threaten or harm orca in the Salish Sea area.  While it is hoped that these plans never have to be enacted, it is comforting to know that, should a spill such as the one in Robson Bight occur again, response actions can occur quickly!

– Mike

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