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Spectre of oil tanker spill looms after fuel leak near Canada-U.S. marine border

Eco groups worry about potential impact in wake of diesel spill from fishing boat
The Raincoast Conservation Foundation modelled how an oil tanker spill off south Vancouver Island would impact different wildlife in the area. (Courtesy of the Raincoast Conservation Foundation)

Diesel continues to leak from the fishing boat that sank between Greater Victoria and San Juan Island on Aug. 13, leaving environmental groups fearing what a large spill could mean for the area’s marine ecosystem.

Diver teams located the Aleutian Isle fishing boat on Wednesday (Aug. 17) after it sank deeper off the coast of the Washington state island and eluded response crews days earlier. A light sheen is still visible on the water – while the boat’s fuel tank remains intact, diesel continues to escape in small amounts from the vessel’s vents, the U.S. Coast Guard stated.

“This incident with the Aleutian (Isle) demonstrated that when it comes to diesel, there is nothing really that can be done to respond,” Misty MacDuffee, Raincoast Conservation Foundation wild salmon program director, told Black Press Media.

The foundation remains concerned about the impact a catastrophic incident would have on whales and marine life in the Haro Strait and Salish Sea.

“Once the oil is in the water, there is little that people can do other than boom and skim,” MacDuffee said. “At best, this is going to recover about 15 per cent of the oil.”

After running simulations on what would happen if an oil tanker spilled around where the Aleutian Isle went down, Raincoast found up to 80 per cent of the southern resident killer whales’ critical habitat would be affected.

Sarah King, head of ocean and plastics for Greenpeace Canada, is also sounding the alarm over the orcas being fatally exposed to fuel. Her group wants governments to prohibit “dangerous fossil fuel projects” and focus on more protection for critical habitats and vulnerable species.

“This spill – from a single 50-foot fishing vessel – puts the dangers of tankers and other larger ships into stark focus,” she said.

The spill response’s unified command on Wednesday claimed no wildlife has been affected, adding that five fish were found entangled in nets that had detached from the boat. The response agencies said the vessel lying more than 60 metres (200 feet) deep poses several hazards for divers tasked with plugging the diesel-leaking vents.

Raincoast and Greenpeace said the incident puts all eyes on the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, with both groups saying it should not continue.

“One poorly timed accident puts the fate of the whole (southern resident) population at risk,” MacDuffee said. “Given that oil exposure for killer whales can mean death, this should give us all pause for thought with the construction of the TMX pipeline now underway.”

“If a spill this small can’t be dealt with even after implementing what the government calls a world-class spill response, imagine if a TMX tanker ran into trouble,” King said.

READ: Endangered orcas’ close call with fuel spill off Victoria a ‘wake-up call’: researcher Follow us on Instagram. Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Jake Romphf

About the Author: Jake Romphf

In early 2021, I made the move from the Great Lakes to Greater Victoria with the aim of experiencing more of the country I report on.
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