Fears fuel spill will harm whales

Killer whales swimming through spilled diesel fuel in the Robson Bight ecological reserve are at risk of health problems ranging from lung lesions to death, says a Department of Fisheries and Oceans research scientist.

Peter Ross, a toxicology specialist at the Institute of Ocean Sciences in Sidney, said his main concern is that killer whales will inhale fumes from the fuel, which spilled into the sensitive area Monday when a barge carrying logging equipment flipped.

About six pieces of equipment, including a fuel truck which contained 10,000 litres of diesel fuel, are now sitting in about 350 metres of water, just outside the area where threatened northern resident killer whales feed, forage and rub themselves on the pebbly beaches.

“We would be worried about eye contact and mouth contact, which could lead to some lesions, ulcerations or infections,” Ross said.

“There are a lot of vapours at the water/air interface and if they inhale the fumes it can lead to systemic and possibly fatal toxicity.”

There are also concerns about the effect on salmon, which the whales eat, and, in the longer term, the thicker residue could get into the sediment or shoreline, Ross said.

“That may take years to improve,” he said.

About 230 orcas are in the northern resident group and between 50 and 60 are believed to be in the immediate area of the spill, including Springer, the whale who, five years ago, was captured in Puget Sound as a sickly orphan and transported back to rejoin her family in Johnstone Strait.

Bill Mackay of Mackay Whale Watching spent Monday night in his boat, the Naiad Explorer, monitoring which whales swam through the oil.

About 14 whales from the A30 group twice swam through the thickest part of the spill, Mackay said.

“They took a double hit,” said Mackay, who has also been monitoring birds.

Like environmental groups, Mackay is wondering why it took so long for crews to get to the site of the spill and why local offers of help with booming were not accepted.

“I really thought we learned something from the Exxon Valdez, but, last night, there was not another vessel in sight. It’s too late to boom it now,” he said.

Burrard Clean started booming areas around Robson Bight Tuesday, in an effort to contain the slick of diesel fuel which, by Tuesday afternoon, was about 14 kilometres long and 20 metres wide and washing ashore at Robson Bight, said Canadian Coast Guard environmental response coordinator Jamie Toxopeus.

Transport Canada is doing overflights and investigating the accident and assessment teams are looking at the shoreline as the cleanup gets underway, he said.

About 199 litres have spilled so far, Toxopeus said.

It is not yet known whether submersibles will be used to take a look at whether the equipment is smashed on the bottom or whether efforts will be made to retrieve it, he said.

Ted LeRoy Trucking of Chemainus, which owned the equipment and barge, is responsible for organizing and paying for the cleanup.

John Ford, Department of Fisheries and Oceans senior marine mammal scientist, is considering whether whales should be discouraged from entering the contaminated area by banging underwater pipes.

“Whales don’t have any sense of smell, so they can’t detect the oil,” he said.

Scientists will try and monitor the whales’ health and behaviour, but, even if they become ill, it is difficult to administer veterinary help to a bunch of free-swimming killer whales, Ford said.

Although the provincial Robson Bight ecological reserve is officially closed to all vessels, large ships sometimes have to enter the one-kilometre-from-shore zone because of safety issues.

“For commercial traffic, it is such a narrow waterway you wouldn’t be able to restrict them from travelling through the reserve. It’s a very busy waterway,” Ford said.