Leading a local community in appreciating, understanding, and protecting birds and their natural habitats.

Seabirds and Slicks: Why Seattle Audubon Opposes The Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion

By Joshua Morris, Urban Conservation Manager & Jennifer Lang, Conservation and Science Coordinator

Protestors march against the proposed pipeline expansion in Vancouver, B.C. Image credit: William Chen


For those who haven’t been following the news from our neighbors to the north, Canada’s federal government is attempting to expand the Trans Mountain Pipeline, which carries crude oils from the Alberta Tar Sands to the British Columbia coast. The expansion would triple the pipeline’s capacity, increase oil tanker traffic in the area by approximately 700%, and elevate risk to wildlife and human communities. In response to the proposed expansion, Seattle Audubon submitted a comment letter to Canada’s National Energy Board for several reasons.

First, we are concerned about our seabirds. Seattle Audubon manages the Puget Sound Seabird Survey, a community science project that mobilizes hundreds of Seattle Audubon Volunteers to monitor the nearshore waters of the Salish Sea up to the Canadian border. Seabirds as a group are among the most threatened birds in the world. A study published in 2015 found that, globally, the monitored population of seabirds declined by nearly 70% between 1950 and 2010. Some seabirds of the Salish Sea are declining, too. The population of Marbled Murrelets (Brachyramphus marmoratus), for instance, has declined by 44% in Washington State since 2001. Murrelets and other seabirds are extremely vulnerable to oil spills. If the pipeline expansion occurs, the increased oil tanker traffic could bring with it a 79-87% likelihood of an oil spill within fifty years. Nearby seabirds could be devastated.


Marbled Murrelet, Photo by  R.Lowe/U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service


Second, we are concerned about the Salish Sea’s resident orcas. Only 74 individuals are left, 25% fewer than in the 1990s. The orcas are ailing due to a lack of Chinook salmon, ship noise that disrupts hunting, and toxins within their blubber. Washington’s Governor, Jay Inslee, recently requested over a billion dollars to fund orca recovery efforts in the Salish Sea. Canada’s federal government is also working on a recovery strategy for these iconic marine mammals. Allowing the pipeline expansion is out of step with the professed commitments of our governments to safeguard the future of our orcas.


Last, but not least, we are concerned about communities on both sides of the border. When major oil spills occur close to human settlements, the economic and social impacts can be devastating. The Deepwater Horizon spill, for instance, was responsible for tens of billions in lost revenue to tourism, fisheries, and real estate across the U.S. Gulf Coast, as well as thousands of lost jobs. The 50 permanent jobs the expanded pipeline is projected to support may not be worth the level of risk. Furthermore, many members of Canada’s First Nations are opposed to the expansion. In August 2018, a court found that they were improperly consulted. The Canadian Government is now undertaking a new consultation process. It is not clear when that renewed process will end, nor what the outcome will be.

Even if the pipeline is never expanded, the Salish Sea will continue bustling with marine traffic. The Seattle-Tacoma Northwest Seaport Alliance ranks among the world’s top 50 busiest container ports, and those are just two of over 70 ports on the Salish Sea. The risk of spills and leaks is omnipresent. That’s why Seattle Audubon developed and established an oil spill response protocol. From September to January, we train volunteer observers throughout the southern Salish Sea to collect on-the-ground information about where oil is present and spreading and about any wildlife that might be at risk. These observations will help focus the efforts by responding agencies to reduce the spill’s impact on shoreline habitats and wildlife. We hope we never have occasion to test their training.


Marine traffic density in the Salish Sea. Our waters are teeming with ships! Source: www.marinetraffic.com


If you’d like to learn how you can help in the event of an oil spill, please contact our Senior Science Manager, Toby Ross.

Seattle Audubon is nonprofit, tax-exempt 501(c)(3) organization. Copyright Seattle Audubon.