Humpback whale jumping in the Douglas Channel, and Marc Young and family — photos provided by Marc Young.
By: Mychaylo Prystupa
On the eve of an important vote for the Northern Gateway project, Kitimat ocean recreationalist Marc Young worries how a massive increase in oil super tankers will literally strike and kill the Douglas Channel’s now thriving whale population.
“With the proposed traffic for the Douglas Channel – I don’t think many of [the whales] will be around if they get smacked on the front of boats, or they don’t like all the noise,” said Young on Friday.
“There will be a lot of giant wakes, and a lot of sad pictures of whales with big dents in them.”
Young is a long-time Kitimat citizen and father of three, who has spent his life boating and sharing his love of whales, sea lions, and other ocean creatures with his family and friends. He often videotapes stunning marine life encounters.
Once threatened humpbacks have made a recovery in the salt waters near Kitimat. A new study showed their numbers have doubled in the Douglas Channel region to 140 whales in recent years. Orcas are also frequently spotted.
But a proposed massive increase in super tanker traffic could threaten the marine mammals with collisions, noise and pollution.
The Northern Gateway pipeline proposal would add 220 supertankers to the Douglas Channel. Add on existing Rio Tinto Alcan vessels, and proposed LNG plants, and the traffic would increase to 900 tankers per year, the District of Kitimat confirmed.
Vancouver, by comparison, currently only transports 50 crude tankers annually.
Haisla leader Gerald Amos has spent his life on boats observing whales around here too. He said, following the Exxon Valdez oil spill disaster in nearby Prince William Sound, there was a recognition of the need to better understand how tankers affect marine life.
“We need to get a handle on what the existing ship traffic is doing to the coast. Nobody knows that.”
“That’s not even talking about the noise factor — and how that might impact these whales,” said Amos on Friday.
He added, killer whales in particular carry special spiritual and cultural importance to many Aboriginal coastal communities. So much so, that many bands no longer harvest them.
Young has a 9 metre (34-foot) boat — tiny compared to tankers — that he uses to go whale watching. But even he has to be careful.
“When we’re down there and we see 20 humpbacks in a small area — and my boat, you kind of have to be careful what you’re doing. I can’t see a giant, super, super tanker not colliding with the creatures that we enjoy,” said Young.
Northern Gateway is planning for its oil to be transported on Very Large Crude Containers (VLCCs) — ships that can be longer than three football fields.
(Very Large Crude Container – Wiki photo)
Enbridge was invited to comment on this story, but it did not respond.
A plebiscite on Saturday in Kitimat will ask citizens if they support the Northern Gateway oil sands pipeline from Alberta. The company does not operate tankers, but would load them.
Marine mammals enjoyed by families
For Young, what’s at stake is the wilderness life he’s come to enjoy in Kitimat. Just last week while catching king crabs with his daughters, he spotted more than 80 barking sea lions on the coastline.
“It’s an empty pile of rocks most times of the year. But in the spring, they come in from further out. They want to chase the small fish, the Oolichans, the Herring — this is where they live while they’re here. They have little babies on the rocks.”
Likewise, he spotted and videotaped several orcas last summer.
“It’s just really neat. The kids really love it. Especially killer whales…”
“Something most people don’t really know is they smell really bad when they breathe on you.”
“I think we might have even skipped school that day just to get out,” said Young with a laugh.
“It does happen every now and again.”
(Killer whale hunting — photo courtesy of Cetacea Lab)
Unique marine mammal encounters
Young said he’s been able to give his daughters experiences with marine life, that few kids ever get to have.
“When they get to pick a creature in class, they pick whales. And lots of the kids laugh, because they think whales are only in Vancouver Aquarium. My kids know that the whales are just outside of town.”
(Young’s three daughter having a laugh with a king crab catch, last Tuesday, near Kitimat.)
“[My eldest daughter has] eaten some pretty experimental things — the eggs out of the female salmon, and prawns – she eats those out of the trap,” he said. “I drew the line on sea urchins.”
The aluminum smelter worker admitted he feels torn about wanting both the waters better protected for marine life, while also working for a heavy polluting employer.
“It is kind of conflicting, because of pollution that happens where I work. But I guess, it’s not an excuse to allow everyone to do it.”