Robson Bight oil spill update – August 28th 2007

Robson Bight oil spill update

A week has passed since the shocking oil spill inside the Robson Bight (Michael Bigg) Ecological Reserve on August 20th. The oil slick has dispersed and most obvious signs of contamination have disappeared. A few oil soaked dead sea birds were found, and others were observed preening excessively in the days following the spill, but there was no mass mortality among sea birds. The rocky shorelines and stony beaches of Johnstone Strait appeared barely impacted at all, though accumulations of diesel in kelp patches and tide lines were briefly worrisome. A boom that was deployed the morning after the spill, to protect the sensitive orca rubbing beaches, was removed two days later because no obvious oil was reaching the shore.

All in all, one might be tempted to say, the whales, and Robson Bight, dodged a bullet. Or have they? Certainly, official government pronouncements portray the incident as over, and without lasting consequences. But just as certainly, many of the orcas of the Northern Resident community (25% of the population) ingested toxic diesel oil vapours , by inhalation, over a considerable period of time. These vapours are highly toxic and could cause lung lesions and induce pneumonia, among other serious and potentially lethal health consequences. One of the orca families, the A30s, spent 6 hours the night after the spill in the midst of the thickest concentrations of diesel fumes, and received additional exposure the following day. The other families (A4s, A5s, I15s, I33s) received lesser doses, but their exposure was still significant. It may take months, or even years, for diesel related symptoms to appear.

Sadly, orcas have no sense of smell, so they were quite unaware of the danger they were facing. When orcas die they typically just disappear, and we seldom have the opportunity to determine cause, so uncertainties will surround future deaths. The “normal” behaviour of the orcas that was observed in the days following the spill cannot be taken as indicative of zero impacts. Unfortunately, government agencies and media alike seem to be reaching this conclusion, as if they simply want the story to go away or have a happy ending. Clearly, this is wishful thinking. We will be holding our collective breath at the beginning of the 2008 orca “season”, watching each family of orcas as it arrives… counting, and hoping.

An additional and immediate layer of great concern relates to the state of the logging equipment and other debris that now lies on the ocean floor at Robson Bight. The barge’s inventory included numerous trucks with fuel tanks, even an ambulance, dozens of 20L containers of new oil, and a tanker truck laden with 10,000 litres of diesel fuel. Official statements immediately following the incident portrayed the amount of diesel involved in the spill as totaling just a few hundred litres, i.e. as not posing much of a problem. A few days later, the view of quantity was modified considerably, with official statements portraying the 10,000+ litres of diesel as having been entirely released and dispersed. Oddly, the conclusion was the same, i.e. that the spill no longer posed a problem. No explanation for the change in view was offered, beyond an evident belief that the tanker & fuel tanks had imploded. That being the case, there was no point in even looking at the wreckage – not worth the cost. Besides, any attempt to lift the wreckage could cause it to fall apart and create an even greater problem. Case for no further action: closed.

As the issue fades in official minds, small quantities of diesel & other oil continue to rise to the surface of Robson Bight. Without question, the issue is not over, not for the orcas, nor for one of the most critical components of their habitat. A careful visual inspection of the underwater spill site must be undertaken immediately, so the remaining danger can be assessed and dealt with. Following it, carefully considered proactive decisions must be taken, for the whales.

Here again is the audio from the spill scene, recorded on our hydrophone in Robson Bight: (link to 65MB clip)

Action suggestions:

1. Canada’s Transportation Safety Board is still trying to decide whether it should even investigate the incident. Apparently, they will make announcement sometime this week. Please encourage them to inspect the underwater spill site and investigate the causes of the accident, via:

2. Canada’s Minister of Transport is Hon. Lawrence Cannon: [email protected]
Please urge him to ensure that Canada’s Transportation Safety Board conducts a full investigation into the accident, including undertaking an immediate visual inspection of the underwater site.

3. Canada’s Prime Minister is Rt. Hon. Stephen Harper: [email protected]
By all means copy your correspondence to him, or write to him separately expressing your concerns & asking him to get involved.

4. If Canada’s governments and official agencies fail to act soon, and conduct a thorough underwater inspection, non-government organizations, led by the Living Oceans Society and Greenpeace, are determined to conduct their own inspection. This will be somewhat (though not hugely) costly. $35,000 is needed. Please contribute what you can via the suggestions at

Thank you!

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