On August 20th, 2007 a barge travelling just outside of an ecological reserve in the Johnstone Strait capsized spilling its load of logging equipment including a diesel tank carrying up to 10,000 L of diesel fuel into the Strait at the northern end of Vancouver Island.
On October 19th, two months after the August 20th oil spill in Robson Bight, Canada's federal & provincial governments finally agreed to conduct an underwater investigation of the spill site, and to share the costs involved. The investigation was delayed due to weather conditions, but was completed in December, 2007.
However, by March, 2008, none of the governments involved had launched a clean up of the spill site, despite video evidence that the trucks were still intact, and potentially full of toxic diesel fuel at the bottom of the Strait. This is a extremely urgent issue, as the orcas will be returning to use the area in June and July; if the tanker is not removed before the orcas arrive, it would be considered too risky to perform until after they leave in the fall.
Finally, British Columbia’s Environment Minister Barry Penner announced on April 18, 2008 that Canada’s federal government will cooperate with the province in removing the diesel fuel tanker now lying underwater in the Ecological Reserve at Robson Bight. Though no definite timing was stated, subsequent comments by Minister Penner clearly indicated that officials are aware that the northern resident orcas are expected to return by early summer.
BC Govt News Release: GOVERNMENTS PLAN TO SALVAGE ROBSON BIGHT WRECKAGE
The Robson Bight ecological reserve was created in 1982 to preserve critical habitat for the threatened Northern resident orca population who number about 230. Frequenting the area to feed and scrape their bellies on the pebble beaches, this area is one of the only "rubbing beaches" to be protected off the coast of British Columbia.
At the time of the spill, Orcalab was recording orcas using a hydrophone.
Click here to listen to full audio clip (wav format).
Following the spill of which 200L of diesel fuel surfaced, the spill measured 14 km long and between 20 and 50 metres wide. The spill crossed the boundary into the ecological reserve by 100 to 200 metres.
At least 60 Northern Resident orca, representing 25% of the total population, were in the immediate area of the spill. 40 Orca from A Clan spent 6 hours in the spill as they were observed moving through the oil slick as they moved into and out of the region. A school of dolphins were observed swimming alongside the spill but luckily did not enter into it.
Scientists are worried about potential longterm health hazards of the diesel spill. Orca's do not have a developed sense of smell and would not be able to detect the toxic fumes and avoid the spill. The main concern is for the potential contact with the whale's eyes and mouth, potentially causing lesions, ulcerations and infections; in addition the volatile fumes can lead to lung lesions, pneumonia and could ultimately prove to be fatally toxic. There is also concern over the potential effects on salmon, the Northern resident's main prey.
Unfortunately both the Canadian Coast Guard and Canada's Transportation Safety Board were unwilling to launch a formal investigation and have the area inspected to determine the status on the wreckage and determine if there would be any future risks from the fuel that was still at the bottom of Johnstone Strait. The Coast Guard had ruled out the inspection after an assessment concluded that the rest of the diesel from the fuel truck, as well as the other machines would have vented into the water and dissipated. This dispite continued observations of fuel and other mechanical fluids upwelling to the surface at the site.
The Transportation Safety Board decided to issue a "safety information letter" about the matter rather than launching a formal investigation into the matter.