Fuel fumes could lead to lung lesions and pneumonia in orcas

Jim Borrowman/All Canada Photos/For Metro Vancouver


An orca swims through a diesel spill yesterday near Robson Bight in Johnstone Strait between Vancouver Island and the mainland. Pods of orcas gather in the area at this time of the year to mate, socialize and rub their bodies against the rocks. The spill stretches more than 14 kilometres and is about 20 metres wide.

“This accident happened at the worst place, at the worst time of year.”

Several orcas have been spotted swimming through a large diesel spill within an iconic marine ecological reserve near Port McNeill, the Coast Guard said yesterday.

“This accident happened at the worst place, at the worst time of year,” said Lance Barrett-Lennard, head of whale and dolphin research at the Vancouver Aquarium.

The spill, which stretched more than 14 kilometres Monday night, occurred near Robson Bight in Johnstone Strait. The area is famous because pods of orcas gather in the summer months to mate, socialize and rub on the smooth gravel beaches.

Part of the concern is that orcas, or killer whales, lack a sense of smell and can’t tell when they are breathing diesel fumes, said Jennifer Lash, executive director of the Sointula, B.C.-based Living Oceans Society.

Exposure to fumes could lead to lung lesions and complications like pneumonia, Barrett-Lennard said.

Another concern is the long-term impact the spill will have on the orcas’ food chain: the eggs, larvae and fish that frequent Robson Bight.

The Robson Bight (Michael Bigg) Ecological Reserve is a 1,250-hectare marine protected area that was created in 1982 as a sanctuary for orcas.

“People come from all over the world to Robson Bight to see the whales,” Lash said. “The whales rub on the beaches. It is one of the core areas of critical habitat for Northern resident killer whales.”

On Monday, a barge, travelling south overturned in Johnstone Strait, spilling logging equipment, including a 10,000-litre fuel tanker, into water about 300 to 400 metres deep.

Randy Alexander, environmental protection manager for Vancouver Island, said the amount of fuel spilled has not yet been officially determined.

But a Transport Canada fly-over of the area Monday evening estimated the size of the spill at about 200 litres.

Dan Bate, a spokesman for the Coast Guard, said yesterday the amount of fuel gurgling up from the sunken tanker seemed to be abating.

A diesel spill, Bate said, is more difficult to contain and clean up than a crude spill such as from the 1989 Exxon Valdez.

However, the fuel is also not as persistent and will likely vaporize before it gets into the food chain.

Alexander said Burrard Clean had been contracted to clean up the spill and was deploying booms to protect beaches.

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