Why are the orcas dying? It’s the pollution, stupid | Guest column

By Rikki Swin

San Juan Island

While our local Orca population is diminishing, they are found in every ocean and coexist with fish farms in Norway. So, what is different about our area?

To borrow from Bill Clinton: It’s the pollution, stupid. It comes from Vancouver and Canadians know it and publish their findings on a website, www.pollutiontracker.org.

Boat noise, shoreline building and fish farms, at best are anecdotal causes compared to the known harmful effects of pollution coming from several Vancouver sources.

In some summer months, like 2017, the outflow of the Fraser River from snow melting in British Columbia was 10,000 cubic meters per second. That is like four Niagara Falls! That torrent of water picks up the pollution discharge from Vancouver and transports it through our archipelago on its way to the Pacific.

According to an organization called eco-justice, Vancouver’s “Lions Gate primary treatment plant discharges over 33 billion liters of sewage effluent each year into coastal waters, via an outfall about 500 meters east of the mouth of the Capilano River. Primary treatment removes less than 40 percent of the organic matter and does not remove most heavy metals or persistent organic pollutants.” There are four additional treatment plants in the Vancouver metro area.

Canadians report finding current pesticides, legacy pesticides, PCBs, PCDD/Fs, Alkylphenols, PAHs, Lead, Mercury, Cadmium, and PBDEs. We have little orca-specific data but we do know about the harmful effects of these contaminants on humans. A San Francisco Bay Area radio station reported that “…PCB levels in the developing [killer whale] calf, especially the firstborn, often lead to its premature death. It sometimes takes multiple attempts for female orcas to have a calf with low enough PCB levels to survive.”

In February 2018, the media source Burnaby Now quoted Peter Ross, vice-president of research and executive director of the Coastal Ocean Research Institute, as saying “… Southern resident killer whales are ‘among the most PCB-contaminated marine mammals in the world,’ said Ross, even though PCBs were banned in North America 40 years ago.”

Untreated sewage flows directly into the water. It contains nutrients that cause abundant plant and algae growth and the bacteria from the dying plants that consume oxygen in the water creating a condition of oxygen depletion (hypoxia). Fish and whales need oxygen to breathe. Recall the recent forest fire smoke – wouldn’t you rather be where you can breathe clean air?

Since 2007, public pressure has mounted on Victoria for its blatant dumping of untreated sewage directly into the ocean. Victoria responded and is completing primary treatment by 2020. Regrettably, Canada stayed the charges for 23 years until 2030, thus allowing the pollution to continue.

If we want an environmentally favorable habitat for fish that will support healthy orcas then we need to take action with Vancouver British Columbia. As important as the current efforts are to improve the orca environment, the core problem of polluting our waters, our fish and our whales by Vancouver, British Columbia is overlooked by most.

Think about what’s in our water the next time you consume a fish, clam or shrimp from these polluted waters? How healthy do you think that is?