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Southern Resident Orcas are threatened by Whatcom County oil refineries

Environmental activists, ecologists and government officials regulate and discuss the potential impacts that transshipment has on Washington’s small orca population

Southern Resident killer whales swim in front of a vessel. Transshipment and the export of crude oil continue to threaten the survival of this endangered species. // Photo courtesy of NOAA Fisheries via Flickr

Southern Resident killer whales, a population of Orcas in the Salish Sea, may benefit from a recent court ruling imposing regulations on the Phillips 66 oil refinery in Ferndale.

On April 6, Whatcom County Superior Court Judge David Freeman ruled that Phillips 66 must account for how vessel shipments affect the Southern Resident killer whale population. This ruling came in response to a 2019 district court appeal made by Friends of the San Juans, an environmental advocacy organization, asking the refinery to quantify the quantity of vessel traffic associated with the construction of several oil storage tanks.   

Southern Resident killer whales have been listed under the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Endangered Species Act since  2005

As of May 2021, there are 75 living Southern Resident killer whales which are separated into three separate pods according to Shari Tarantino, executive director of Orca Conservancy in Seattle. 

“The protection and recovery of the Southern Resident killer whales has been one of our top priorities,” said Lovel Pratt, director of the marine protection program at Friends of the San Juans. 

Operations at Phillips 66 and other refineries located in Whatcom County’s Cherry Point Industrial Zone have significant impacts on the marine ecosystem. 

Tarantino said one of those operations is called transshipment — the process of moving goods to a holding facility between its starting point and final destination. Right now, she said oil from North Dakota is being moved to Cherry Point before it’s shipped elsewhere.

“We’d be better served, environmentally, if the oil arriving in Bellingham was directly sent to gas stations, and instead ship oil exports from Alaska,” Tarantino said. 

Rud Browne, a Whatcom County councilmember, said he’s concerned about the possibility of Cherry Point refineries being converted to inbound import terminals for fuels that are refined in other areas of the globe.  

“The refining goes to areas where there’s typically much lower labor rights or environmental standards which means there’s more global pollution,” Browne said. 

The Whatcom County Council is working to regulate industrial land use so that when there’s a significant change in use or size of the facility the public will be made aware and voice their concerns. 

“We can regulate land use permits and we can do so when we believe it’s in the legitimate interest of the county from a transportation and public safety perspective,” Browne said. 

Tarantino said that the combination of noise pollution, toxins and lack of prey continue to threaten this critically endangered species.  

Browne said when oil refineries are converted into import terminals, a larger amount of ships will use industrial ports which disrupt orca whales’ habitat.  

Vessel traffic creates noise pollution which interferes with Orca whales’ ability to use echolocation to communicate with each other and locate prey according to the Georgia Straight Alliance, an environmental protection organization located in Vancouver B.C., Canada.  

Still, any shipment of crude oil also presents the risk of an oil spill. Tarantino said an event like this would be a ‘showstopper,’ and detrimental to the habitat of Southern Resident killer whales.

In 2004, the Washington state legislature adopted a zero spills strategy to prevent oil from entering marine waters. 

“The cheapest, least damaging spill that occurs is the one that doesn’t occur in the first place,” said Ty Keltner, the spills program communications manager for the Washington Department of Ecology. 

Brian Kirk, prevention section manager for the Washington Department of Ecology, said that the department also implements a variety of strategies to mitigate the risk of oil tankers spilling in the Salish Sea. This includes the regular inspection of oil transfers between tankers and refineries as well as risk analysis reports of vessel trips through the water. 

“That doesn’t mean that the risk of an oil spill is zero,” Kirk said. “A catastrophic oil spill could still happen this afternoon.” 

However, Kirk said that Washington state has some of the strongest laws in the country regarding oil pollution — especially after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound, Alaska.  

Kirk said that preventing oil spills is not only in the best interest of preserving Orca whale populations but also for oil refineries, shipping companies, environmental groups, tribal communities and the general public. 

“Preventing spills is a common goal for everybody,” Kirk said. 

Along with government regulations and prevention strategies, recovery programs are also being implemented across the state to preserve Southern Resident killer whale populations.  

In 2018, Gov. Jay Inslee issued an executive order to create the Southern Resident Orca Task Force to take action and protect the Southern Residents. 

Efforts are also being made across Whatcom County to increase the population of Chinook salmon, Southern Resident killer whale’s primary source of food. 

Grace Kirkey, a student at Bellingham Technical College, works at the Perry Center, a fish hatchery owned by the college that raises salmon. She said that after hearing about how orca whale populations were starving, the hatchery was able to get a permit to raise Chinook salmon. 

Once they raise the salmon, Kirkey said the Perry Center team releases them into Whatcom Creek, and the fish swim into Bellingham Bay. 

Kirkey said that Southern Resident killer whales are especially significant as they’re a prominent keystone species in the Salish Sea. Since Orcas are at the top of the food chain, she said that she wants to protect them because if they were gone, their absence would significantly disrupt the health of the habitat

“It’s all about maintaining balance in the ecosystem,” Kirkey said.

Cameron Baird is a second-year visual journalism student and a city news reporter for The Front. His work primarily focuses on the COVID-19 pandemic in Whatcom County. When he’s not reporting, he enjoys going on hikes, camping and listening to music. You can reach him at cameronbaird.thefront@gmail.com.


Cameron Baird

Cameron Bairdis a second-year visual journalism student and a city news reporter for The Front. His work primarily focuses on the COVID-19 pandemic in Whatcom County. When he’s not reporting, he enjoys going on hikes, camping and listening to music. You can reach him at cameronbaird.thefront@gmail.com.


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