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Scientists ask Canada to reduce shipping noise to help save orcas

In this photo taken July 31, 2015, an orca whale breaches in view of Mount Baker, some 60 miles distant, in the Salish Sea in the San Juan Islands.
In this photo taken July 31, 2015, an orca whale breaches in view of Mount Baker, some 60 miles distant, in the Salish Sea in the San Juan Islands. AP

An international group of marine scientists on Wednesday asked the Canadian government to reduce underwater noise in the Salish Sea because it threatens the southern resident killer whale population here.

The 20 scientists, which include researchers from Olympia, Seattle and Friday Harbor to British Columbia and the United Kingdom, said increased noise from shipping vessels and other waterfront industries threaten the orcas in this region.

“These animals swim around in a kind of acoustic smog if you like. And every ship that goes by absolutely fills their world with noise,” said Lance Barrett-Lennard, the head of the Vancouver Aquarium’s cetacean research program, in an interview with CBC News.

Specifically, the letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and other Canadian officials recommends reducing shipping noise by three decibels over the next decade and 10 decibels within 30 years. That could be accomplished by design and engineering improvements, mandatory ship speed limits and other measures, the letter states.

Late last year, British Columbia officials approved the expansion of the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline, which could mean more tanker traffic in the waters off Whatcom County.

Canadian officials released an orca recovery plan in March that was widely criticized by WWF-Canada and other organizations for not addressing the threats facing orcas.

As of this January, the southern resident orca population had only 78 members, fewer than 30 of them reproductive females.

“Numerous threats ... are undermining the the population’s ability to successfully recruit new calves, and are threatening its long-term survival,” the scientists wrote

Shipping activity and vessel noise has been linked to reduced foraging and stress among southern resident orcas, which also have difficulty communicating in the increasingly noisy Salish Sea.

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