The BC Environment Ministry released another press release on April 10, this time announcing in bold headlines that the diesel sheen from the Queen of the North spill was decreasing. What they fail to point out anywhere in the update is that 20 days into the incident, fuel and perhaps other lubricants continue to leak from the sunken vessel. Not only that, but Hermann Meuter, co-director of Cetacealab, a whale research station on Gil Island, near the site of the disaster, reports that all three members of the A36 matriline of northern resident killer whales "...were in contact with diesel fuel last evening (Monday). A32 was seen to surface right in the middle of a 25 feet sheen of diesel". This report comes from a boat from Hartley Bay which had been tracking the whales in Wright Sound. Tuesday morning, Hermann and his partner were "...getting ready to head out to monitor the situation" on the water. A full description as to what happened last night, and what they find today, is promised for their web site Cetacealab
later today .
The question therefore arises as to what, if anything, the authorities are doing about the possible impact of the oil on the marine mammals in the vicinity, including not just the orcas but also the 50 plus Pacific white-sided dolphins that showed up last week? Are they at all concerned about the potentially negative impact this oil could have on these animals? If so, what are they doing to mitigate that impact? For instance, they say they are monitoring the spill from the air every second day; but, are they relating this information to the location and path of the marine mammals in the area? Also, have they considered hazing as a means of keeping the whales and dolphins away from the sheen?
In a CanWest News Service article posted on the www.canada.com web site Tuesday, the claim is made that no one knows at this stage how much of the 220,000 litres of diesel, 20,000 litres of light oil and 220 litres of hydraulic oil on board the vessel has leaked out so far. Incident Commander Lance Sundquist admits, however, that fuel is still leaking from the ship. And although he doesn't know how much is leaking, he says it is likely to be "a fairly minimal amount". According to the article, last Saturday "two diesel sheens of 500 litres were spotted from a flight over the site". One of these sheens was apparently five to ten metres wide, while the other was approximately one metre wide. The article goes on to state that "(t)he fuel leak is still being checked by boat each day". Meanwhile, B. C. Ferries are reported in the same web article as apparently “meeting with two European salvage companies to discuss the possibility of removing diesel from the vessel, or other ways of preventing long-term damage".
Who can say for sure that if the whales and dolphins swim through the diesel sheen they won't be adversely affected? What about the potential effect of the oil on their eyes? And what if they inhale the vapours? Can the authorities, specifically the federal authorities responsible for protection of the marine environment in general, and of marine mammals in particular, reassure us that the oil on the surface is so thin, or so spread out, or in such small quantities, that its impact is likely to be minimal? Because one thing we know about diesel fuel is that although half will evaporate within 24 hours, the other half is quite toxic.
In short, there are all sorts of unanswered questions concerning the fate and wellbeing of the marine mammals in the area of the Queen of the North spill, but very few answers. The latest BC Environment Ministry press release does say that "A Wildlife Response Plan was developed to address any wildlife potential impacted by the fuel spill". What does this mean: that the plan will only be implemented once wildlife are impacted? That's what it sounds like to this observer.
The fact of the matter is that if whales and dolphins are swimming through diesel sheen, as they certainly appear to be, a plan should be operationalised now. In other words, don't wait until dead or dying marine mammals start washing up on shore before implementing a plan. This is a variation of the old adage to the effect that "life is what happened to me while I went about making my plans!"
A step in the right direction would be for people such as Paul Ross, an oil spill and wildlife expert from Environment Canada, his counterpart, Karen Hutton, from DFO, Peter Ross, a marine mammal toxicologist from the Institute of Ocean Sciences, or John Ford, a killer whale expert from the Pacific Biological Station, to come forward and say something along the lines of: "We are very concerned about a recent report that killer whales have been observed swimming through diesel fuel from the Queen of the North spill in Wright Sound. Our strategy to deal with this disturbing development includes monitoring the marine mammals and their journey in and around the oil, looking for any sign that they or their prey may be adversely impacted, and examining possible measures, including hazing techniques, to mitigate these impacts. Our surveillance program includes aircraft and vessels, working in tandem. We will continue to implement this program so long as marine mammals are in the area, or until such time as the leaks are staunched."
Who knows, maybe all this is being done as we speak, but if it is, it sure is being kept top secret. Okay, so the authorities have a boat out there every day, and an airplane evvery second day, but what are these assets doing to specifically address the issue of the marine mammals threatened by the oil? The public has a right to know. Moreover, the community of Hartley Bay, plus the researchers at Cetacealab, shouldn't have to do this kind of protection work on their own, with their own vessels, fuel and volunteer commitment. This is what we pay our taxes for, so that organisations with the skills, capacity and mandate to get out there on the water and in the air actually do their job, not because they are hounded into doing something by people like myself and Hermann Meuter, but because they are on the ball, on top of things, anticipating and responding if and as required.
So, what we need is someone to come forward and accept responsibility for this issue of the marine mammals and the oil spill, to tell us what the situation is, what the risks are, and what, if anything, they plan to do about it. Is it to much to expect that a provincial ( or federal, for that matter ) press release deal with this issue, instead of burying one's head in the sand like an ostrich?