Fighting for the Salish Sea

By Briony Penn, May 2016

With 18 large port expansion projects around the Salish Sea, how’s an ecosystem to survive the influx of tanker traffic?

Stephanie BuffamSALT SPRING ISLAND is smack dab in the centre of the Salish Sea. On the clearest spring day, from our highest peaks, I can see the tip of Mount Waddington at the northernmost edge and Mount Rainier at the southernmost edge of the watershed. In between these two monarchs of mountains is a drainage basin of 110,000 square kilometres. 

If I could swim among the hundreds of islands and the 18,000 square kilometres of water, I could catch a glimpse of over 100 different species of bird and 200 species of fish, 20 species of marine mammal and 3000 invertebrates—orcas to nudibranchs. 

From my viewpoint in the centre of this particular universe, I can also see tankers in every direction. They are the latest big problem affecting the Salish Sea. Not just oil tankers but all tankers—whether they are carrying coal, LNG, grain, televisions or toxic chemicals. 

Federal and provincial agencies on both sides of the border have been missing in action during the last decade on the environmental front. So it isn’t surprising that a transboundary grass roots citizen action has coalesced to take the matter to the highest maritime authority—the International Maritime Organization—which at the very least has the ability to bring all the players to the table.

The increase in tanker traffic is an issue that has snuck up on residents—if you can call the approach of a 120,000-tonne Aframax or a 300-metre Capesize bulk carrier vessel “sneaking up.” One can feel the passage of a supertanker as the vibrations of its huge engines travel up the shore and rattle windows. If you’re lucky, they just pass by, but now the likelihood is they’ll park and idle spewing sulphurous exhaust. At times I have counted 15 tankers at anchor off one shore. 

Recent protests of citizens’ groups like the Gabriolans Against Freighter Anchorages to proposed parking lots of tankers off their shores, or the Saanich Nations protests around a proposed Malahat First Nation LNG plant, or My Sea to Sky protests against Squamish LNG, are just a few examples of the rising concern and frustrations. And it shows no signs of abating with 18 large port expansion projects proposed in the Salish Sea. A 43 percent increase of large, commercial marine vessel traffic is predicted, growing the current 12,000 tankers a year to closer to 18,000. 

And the size of the tankers themselves is also growing. In 2017, the Panama Canal Expansion Project will enable even larger tankers to reach our shores. The cumulative effects are, as usual, the real killer and no agency has been tasked with tackling that problem. 

Stephanie Buffum, executive director of Friends of San Juan, who is spearheading the fight from the US side, points to the science that suggests that this ecosystem, especially species at risk like the southern resident killer whales or Chinook salmon populations, “can’t take one more hit” whether it is an oil spill, another decline in food or more noise pollution.

On the Canadian side, one of the supporting groups is Raincoast Conservation Foundation. Chris Genovali of Raincoast states that “what we can safely say is that we need more salmon and less tankers” if the Salish Sea as a functioning ecosystem is going to survive. As an indicator of how serious the situation is, last month the US Northwest Fisheries Commission, which oversees all tribal fishing, recommended wholesale closures of salmon and herring fishing in the Salish Sea to give populations a better chance to recover. 

The problem is, of course, that the humans living along the sprawling southern perimeter of the bowl from Tacoma to Squamish and Victoria to Campbell River are at seven million and rising. Besides not dealing with sprawl, we’ve been over fishing, over logging, over dumping toxic chemicals, and now over tankering.

How do the tankers rate as priorities? Is anyone analyzing the potential cumulative impacts of all these proposed terminal expansion projects? These include, annually, 160 more coal tanker transits proposed for Fraser Surrey terminal, 80 more LNG tankers out of Woodfibre in Squamish, and 520 transits of container ships out of new facilities in Delta (Roberts Bank 2). 

The 12 expansions in Vancouver alone include more grain tankers from Viterra, the company which handles most of Western Canada’s grain; more animal rendering/oil disposal tankers from West Coast Reduction; more container ships from Centerm; and, if Kinder Morgan’s plans are approved, a tripling of oil tankers out of its Westridge terminal. 

On the US side, just from the Puget Sound area, there’s more coal to move from Bellingham (an estimated 974 tankers-worth per year), more petrochemicals to move from the refinery in Anacortes (120), and more containers to move in and out of Seattle and Tacoma (564). Which straw will break the camel’s back?

The desert metaphor isn’t too far-fetched even for the wet West Coast. These port projects are all directed by global corporate tenants. They are the stakeholders in the game. Local governments, First Nations and concerned citizens have been struggling to be heard on an other than piece-meal basis for over a decade. 

In 2014, the US Friends of San Juan realized they couldn’t “fight every battle” and started to explore a “premier global tool that a community can adopt to protect a uniquely important marine ecosystem from the threats posed to it by international shipping.” 

The international designation, called a Particularly Sensitive Sea Area (PSSA), only regulates large international vessels, nothing small, but that gives it a certain paradoxical nimbleness. The PSSA doesn’t have the ability to cap traffic but is able to influence routing, areas to be avoided, anchorages, traffic separation schemes, inshore traffic zones and prohibition of discharge. It is also a designation that can be nominated by citizens. As Buffum notes “This is truly a grass roots initiative because so many people who are at the centre of the Salish Sea have been dissatisfied with the level of review at the rise of tanker traffic. There hasn’t been enough energy at the federal, state or provincial level so that is why, as citizens, we moved forward to take our concerns to the International Marine Organization.”

US groups, and now Canadian groups like Raincoast and Georgia Strait Alliance, are following the lead of citizens from 17 PSSAs around the world, including the Galapagos, the Canary Islands, Great Barrier Reef, Western European Waters, and Baltic Sea. The first good news is that once designated it could provide the structure to have the conversation with all the agencies and industry that should be at the table. The second good news is that the proof of the concept is in the initial support. The feasibility study was completed by Buffum’s group in 2014, and the region passed all the criteria for a PSSA. Then they drafted the nomination, which passed the legal review. They have got provisional nods for the concept in the US at all levels, including the federal (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration—NOAA), state, tribal and industry.

The group is now soliciting feedback and endorsements for the nomination from the Canadian equivalent groups and agencies like DFO, Coast Guard, Ministry of Environment, Port of Vancouver, local governments and ENGOs, which is why Buffum met with local Canadian groups in April to ask them to shop the idea to their agencies like they have down south. She’s looking for endorsements from all sectors. Once the protective measures—such as routes and no-go areas—are pinned down in workshops, the final PSSA nomination will be submitted to the International Marine Organization. It typically takes a year to review and make a decision. 

According to Genovali, it is an important piece of the puzzle and the least we should be doing, while still moving quickly ahead with the National Marine Conservation Area and upholding the national recovery plan for southern resident Orca, which has been severely neglected. The UNESCO Man and the Biosphere reserve proposal has also been resurrected by various groups and is getting traction in local governments. First Nations on both sides of the boundary are in conversation about a declaration of sacred waters. 

In addition, the Shaw Discovery Centre of the Salish Sea, the Cattle Point Foundation, and, over in Bellingham, the new Institute of the Salish Sea at Western University, are all helping to educate us about the nature and culture of the Salish Sea. 

As Buffum notes, the PSSA is just one small but important international designation which she hopes will strengthen the myriad of efforts being made at grass roots levels to save the Salish Sea. 

Briony Penn has been living near and writing about the Salish Sea pretty much all of her life. She is the author of The Real Thing: The Natural History of Ian McTaggart Cowan. It received the 2016 Roderick Haig-Brown Regional Prize as the book that contributes most to the enjoyment and understanding of British Columbia.