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Vessels used in response to a hazardous spill sit on the waters of Vancouver Harbour as the federal government announces changes to improve oil tanker safety in Vancouver, B.C., on Monday March 18, 2013.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

In coming weeks, more than a thousand small, yellow cards will traverse the waters around Vancouver and the Gulf and San Juan islands, washing up along the shores of the Salish Sea. Those who stop to pick them up will see a simple message: "This could be oil."

The cards are part of an oil-spill study launched Thursday by members of the Raincoast Conservation Foundation and the Georgia Strait Alliance.

By dropping hundreds of the small pieces of bright yellow marine plywood from boats into the water, the environmental groups are aiming to study the trajectory oil spills might take, while creating awareness of the risks.

Members of the public who find the four-by-six-inch cards can then contact the groups either by phone or online and plot the individually numbered cards on an interactive map. Researchers can then make inferences based on the cards' start and end points and the time it took to travel.

"We're hoping we can engage the public, especially beachcombers and people that are spending time along these shorelines," said Chris Genovali, executive director of the Raincoast Conservation Foundation.

The initiative is in response to Kinder Morgan's proposal to twin its Trans Mountain pipeline, which would increase the flow of oil through the system from 300,000 barrels a day to 890,000 barrels, increasing the number of monthly tanker calls to 34, up from five currently.

Brian Falconer, Raincoast's marine operations co-ordinator and a captain with 35 years' experience, said he firmly believes an oil spill is inevitable.

"If you look at any sector shipping on the coast, there have been accidents, whether they're ferries, whether they're freighters, whether they're tugs and barges," he said. "With most accidents, there is plenty of technology in place to mitigate them, but they happen anyway. When you look at this activity of shipping oil, everywhere in the world that it has happened, there have been catastrophic incidents. Yes, they're less than they used to be, but they still occur and they still occur regularly."

Mr. Genovali also noted the threat to B.C.'s southern resident killer whales, which are already listed as endangered.

"They are kind of a cultural identity to British Columbians; their image is ubiquitous," he said. "Businesses, sports teams – wherever you look, you're likely going to see their image somewhere, and I think that's reflective of how important they are to the region. That is part of the calculation: Do we want to put those whales, and what they represent across the board, in great peril for this?"

The drops, which began Thursday and will continue through Monday, are taking place at locations where the risk of incidents is higher, such as heavy traffic areas. In all, the groups will drop more than 1,000 cards.

The project comes just weeks after the release of an oil-spill preparedness study commissioned by the B.C. government, which suggested efforts to clean up tanker spills would leave most of the oil in the ocean. In six of seven live spill exercises done on the waters of the Dixon Entrance and the Strait of Juan de Fuca, more than 65 per cent of the spill remained on the water after a five-day simulation, according to the study by Nuka Research. In the seventh, 49 per cent remained.

Follow me on Twitter: @AndreaWoo

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