Slowing it down for the whales

BC Coast Pilot’s participation in the ECHO program in Haro Strait and Juan de Fuca

Thank you to everyone who participated and the efforts you have made to reduce underwater noise in key southern resident killer whale foraging areas. This is the second year of the Enhancing Cetacean Habitat and Observation (ECHO) voluntary vessel slowdown program and we were thrilled to see a cumulative vessel participation rate of 88% across all 15 slowdown weeks. The ECHO program is led by the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority and supported by the BC Coast Pilots (BCCP) and a variety of companies interesting in understanding and managing the impact of shipping activities on at-risk whales with the long-term goal of developing effective mitigation measures to reduce threats to whales.

The voluntary vessel slowdown first occurred in Haro Straits in 2017, an area where southern resident killer whales are known to feed during the summer months. Based on data from the 2017 slowdown trial, the program determined optimum speeds for different vessels:

  • 15kn or less for vehicle carries, cruise and container vessels; and
  • 5kn or less bulkers, tankers, Washington State Ferries and government vessels.

The slowdown is effective in reducing sound intensity, increasing the whales’ ability to feed and communicate.

Captain Robin Stewart, Vice-President of the BC Coast Pilots, has been sailing the B.C. coast for most of his life and believes that the work done with the ECHO Program is helping ports and the shipping industry better understand the effects noise from ships can have on killer whales.

“Our involvement in the ECHO Program allows us to better contribute to research that determines the impact our shipping industry has on these whales in our waterways, and how we can make the most effective changes to protect our coastline and its residents,” said Captain Stewart. “We encourage vessels to participate to help promote better practices for working in sensitive areas and create a more sustainable shipping industry.”

This year, in addition to the slowdown in Haro Strait, BCCP also participated in the Juan de Fuca Strait lateral displacement trial. This new program’s objective was to reduce vessel noise impacts in key feeding areas by asking deep-sea vessels to navigate as far south in the traffic lanes as possible, away from the key feeding areas. The trial began on August 20thand concluded on October 31st.

In the coming months, the ECHO Program team will be analyzing vessel movement data, acoustic data and whale behavioral data collected during this year’s initiatives. A report will be shared spring 2019.

The pilots are committed to protecting this iconic species on our B.C. coastlines through additional projects such as the Whale Report system. Stay tuned for upcoming blog posts on our new projects.