LNG ship traffic in B.C. could dramatically increase whale deaths: study

“Unsustainable losses” of fin and humpback whales projected annually from ship strikes in Great Bear Sea when new terminals are fully operational in 2030

Victoria, B.C. — Shipping related to the Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) export terminals currently under development in Kitimat, B.C. is projected to increase whale deaths from ship strikes in the region, according to a newly published study in Endangered Species Research from authors at North Coast Cetacean Society (B.C. Whales), University of St. Andrews, Fisheries & Oceans Canada, WWF-Canada and several other organizations.

The peer-reviewed study, published today, predicts that two fin whales and 18 humpback whales could die each year from ship strikes, up from what is currently estimated to be less than one fin whale and three to four humpback whale deaths annually. These losses would be considered unsustainable and would reverse the recovery of both populations in the region.

The single largest source of mortality risk for whales in the region comes from the LNG Canada project, which is expected to dramatically increase shipping traffic in the region. Models indicate that by 2030, whale-vessel encounters will increase 30 times for ships that are more than 180 metres in length, travelling along the coastal route to Kitimat.

Fin whales, the second largest creatures on the planet and the species most often struck and killed by commercial ships, only recently returned to this coastal habitat, which will soon be traversed by LNG tankers. While their populations have been slowly recovering, Canadian Pacific fin whale and humpback whale populations are currently listed as at risk with a status of “Threatened” and “Special Concern,” respectively, under the Species At Risk Act (SARA).

“Predicting ship strikes is very difficult. There are dozens of factors at play when whales and vessels interact, and there are still many unanswered questions. Our aim was to take what we know right now, using the very best datasets available, and see what the models would predict. Our study shows that once LNG vessel traffic arrives, whale populations in the region will start to decline,” says Eric Keen, lead author of the paper and a professor at the University of the South (Sewanee) and Science Director at the North Coast Cetacean Society.

An injured whale in the water photographed from above
Moon, a humpback whale who suffered a severe spinal injury, likely from a ship strike © North Coast Cetacean Society

This paper, which is the result of a multi-year collaboration and employs a new methodology, is the first in the region to quantify the number of potential whale deaths. It is based on available data sources and a modelling approach, using Automatic Identification System (AIS) databases, line-transect surveys, shore-based monitoring, whale-borne tags, aerial drone-based focal follows and iterative simulations.

“These predicted losses come from a peer-reviewed approach, using the best available data, but this is one case where we really hope the numbers are wrong. The loss of this many fin and humpback whales would impair recovery of these populations and reduce their numbers locally,” says Janie Wray, CEO of the North Coast Cetacean Society, who has been studying whales in the region for over 25 years and is one of the paper’s co-authors.

The study’s predictions are dire but are not a foregone conclusion if actions are taken to mitigate ship-strike risks. The most effective mitigation measure identified by the study would be a seasonal restriction on passage through sensitive areas. A speed reduction would also reduce risks, particularly as it relates to large ship strikes.

“In light of the study’s findings, the need for action is clear. The onus is on government and industry to ensure that the intensification of commercial shipping in the region doesn’t reverse the recovery of these whale populations. Governments must re-examine project conditions and put in place effective measures that reduce the risk of whale deaths from LNG shipping before it begins,” says Hussein Alidina, WWF-Canada’s lead specialist for marine conservation and one of the paper’s co-authors.


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About World Wildlife Fund Canada
WWF-Canada is committed to equitable and effective conservation actions that restore nature, reverse wildlife loss and fight climate change. We draw on scientific analysis and Indigenous guidance to ensure all our efforts connect to a single goal: a future where wildlife, nature and people thrive. For more information visit wwf.ca.


About the North Coast Cetacean Society

The North Coast Cetacean Society – (NCCS) was founded in 2001 and is a non-profit, charitable whale- research organization that has 22 years of dedication towards research, education, and the protection of whales in partnership with indigenous communities along the north and central coast of British Columbia.