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Southern Resident Killer Whale shows off in the Salish Sea SUPPLIED


There is something majestical about spotting an orca whale—their gracefulness and black and white colouring that stands out in stark contrast to the blue ocean comes to mind.

Vancouverites are lucky, as many have had the privilege of seeing the orca whale (which are referred to by scientists as Southern Resident Killer Whales (SRKW) in the Salish Sea) in person.

But like everything in life with privilege comes responsibility and living in a port city, so close to SRKW, is no exception. That's why it's necessary to be cognizant of the fact that all human activity can adversely affect this species.

Unfortunately, despite being a popular draw for whale-watching tourists, their population has dwindled down to an estimated 76 as of October 2017.

SRKW have been protected under the federal Species at Risk Act since 2008. The primary threats affecting them have been identified as: a decline of food sources; contaminants; and noise from marine vessels that could be interfering with the echolocation and sounds that marine mammals use to navigate, find food and communicate with one another.

Hussein Alidina, lead specialist at the Oceans Program at WWF-Canada, said the urgency of the situation has led to public pressure on the government and industry.

"When the whales are suffering or there's an issue that's going to affect them, particularly in the situation they are in right now, it evokes a lot of strong emotions from people who want to do something," said Mr. Alidina.

That message was heard. In November 2014, the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority—in collaboration with marine transportation industry, scientists, conservation and environmental groups, First Nation individuals, and government agencies—launched the Enhancing Cetacean Habitat and Observation (ECHO) Program to determine how marine vessel traffic may be affecting marine mammal populations.

The program uses an underwater listening station in the Strait of Georgia to determine the decibel levels and sources of underwater noise in order to better understand how whales might be affected by noise from large commercial vessels.

"I think the value that ECHO brings is that it starts providing a mechanism to address some of these shipping and noise-related threats," said Mr. Alidina. Adding that WWF has joined leading acoustic scientists on calling for the federal government to enact legislation that would reduce ocean noise by a minimum three decibels over the next 10 years in the Salish Sea.

The ECHO Program launched a voluntary vessel slowdown trial in a small part of the Salish Sea in the summer of 2017 to allow the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority and others to assess what kind of impact speed reduction has on vessel noise levels and to determine whether such measures will help SRKW.

Due to the large amount of international marine vessel traffic that transits the Salish Sea, the ECHO Program has had partners from across the U.S. border sign on to assist in the study.

"Canada seems to be leading the way on this, particularly the work that's happening in the northern part of the Salish Sea up by the Port of Vancouver," said Kevin Bartoy, environmental program manager for Washington State Ferries, which has been involved with ECHO's Advisory Working Group since 2015.


Underwater noise measurement equipment being lowered into the Salish Sea for the ECHO Program SUPPLIED


Mr. Bartoy said that on the American side of the border the focus for Washington State Ferries over the past decade has been on studying how shoreside infrastructure increases underwater ocean noise and what effect that may have on marine life both in the water and the foreshore area. Environmental regulatory agencies in the U.S. have not yet explored regulating vessel noise, so Washington State has been an eager partner in ECHO's research.

Fortunately, the steps Washington State has taken on greenhouse gas reduction for their existing ferry fleet can have benefits for underwater noise as well. Moreover, examining more efficient propeller blades and hybridizing one diesel-electric class of their fleet to full electric could help SRKW.

"It's unfortunate for SRKW and other species that we have a boundary that overlaps their territory," said Mr. Bartoy. "Groups like ECHO, with this trans-boundary cooperation that is happening, is where we need to be going in the big picture. Because none of the orcas are carrying passports."

It will take a massive effort to increase the number of SRKW and the ECHO program is a good start. But local residents can pitch in by slowing down the speed of recreational boats, keeping a safe distance from the whales and supporting initiatives that help the protection and recovery of SRKW.

To learn more about the ECHO Program visit www.portvancouver.com/whales.


This content was produced by The Globe and Mail's Globe Edge Content Studio. The Globe's editorial department was not involved in its creation