Race Against the Clock: 30-Fold Increase in Whale Deaths is on the Horizon for the Douglas Channel

The Douglas Channel serves as a feeding ground for various whale species, thanks to its nutrient-dense waters. Killer whales are drawn by the salmon in the Kitimat River while humpback whales, harbour porpoises, and Pacific white-sided dolphins visit in pursuit of herring. Photo credit: North Coast Cetacean Society

The whales of the Douglas Channel are facing a looming threat: increased ship traffic from a soon-to-be-completed LNG facility in Kitimat. The result of this? A potential 30-fold increase in whale deaths by 2030.

The Douglas Channel has seen remarkable recovery rates in the numbers of fin and humpback whales frequenting its waters, but this threat could reverse a century of population growth. 

The LNG project is estimated to produce 4 million metric tons of carbon emissions each year. That is roughly equivalent to an additional 870,000 cars on the road, leading many critics to argue that LNG may not be the clean transition fuel that it has been touted to be. Photo credit: LNG Canada

A recent study spearheaded by experts, including Janie Wray of the North Coast Cetacean Society and the Coastal Guardians of the Gitga’at Nation, looked into the potential impacts of the completion of the colossal $38 billion LNG Canada terminal. Scheduled to be completed in 2025, the plant is poised to ship out 26 million metric tons of LNG annually from Canada to markets in Asia and beyond. This development is expected to drastically increase marine traffic in Douglas Channel, located within the Gitga’at First Nation’s territory, by introducing an additional 350 vessels (equating to 700 voyages) each year.

A humpback whale calf with a deep gash in its back near Hornby Island. Whales that survive the initial strike are still vulnerable, very often succumbing to infection or starvation as a result of a loss of mobility. Photo credit: Louis Jobidon on Times Colonist

Humpbacks and other baleen whales lack biosonar or echolocation capabilities, which means they are less aware of the presence of ships compared to orcas. The study forecasts that the Channel will see two fin whale and 18 humpback whale deaths yearly due to ship strikes.

BC has already seen its fair share of ship strikes, with 11 recorded strikes from July to August of this year alone. The story of Moon, a humpback whale that calls BC’s waters home, is particularly resonant. A ship struck her and broke her spine, leaving her with a paralyzed tail. Despite her injuries, she still made the 4800-kilometer migration from BC to Hawaii. However, she has not been seen since she was last spotted in Hawaii in December 2022, looking thin and pink, likely infested by whale lice.

Moon is pictured here with her broken spine. It is believed that she has likely died of starvation as a result of her injuries. She leaves behind a calf. Photo credit: North Coast Cetacean Society

Wray and her colleagues are calling for a seasonal restriction on passage through the area, or at the very least, the adoption of slowdown zones and other mitigation strategies. LNG is required to have a marine mammal management program for Douglas Channel, but has yet to release this report. Wray hopes that the company will listen to some of their recommendations so that collisions with these highly intelligent coastal inhabitants will be minimized. 

Read the full article on this issue on West Coast Now.