For Immediate Release,
March 4, 2021
SEATTLE— The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers failed to consider the harm shipping traffic will do to critically endangered orcas when it approved plans to expand Seattle Harbor, the Center for Biological Diversity said in a federal lawsuit filed today.
The ultra-large container ships the port expansion will accommodate will exacerbate the noise and disturbance from commercial shipping in the Salish Sea. Noise disrupts orcas’ feeding because they need to echolocate salmon, their preferred prey.
The project would also dredge up toxic contaminants as it deepens and enlarges the channel. Orcas starving and burning fat stores laden with chemicals is one reason for their low reproductive rates; this declining population of orcas is down to just 74 individuals.
“Dredging up pollutants to bring in more and bigger ships will make two major threats to these endangered orcas even more serious,” said Catherine Kilduff, an attorney with the Center. “The Trump administration signed off on the Seattle Harbor expansion without analyzing that harm. Southern Residents are starving to death, and increasing boat noise and traffic would accelerate their decline. We need to take better care of these West Coast orcas.”
Scientists have estimated that the doubling of ship traffic between 1950 and 2000 has resulted in a doubling of noise intensity every 10 years. Larger ships and tending vessels will create more noise around Seattle Harbor, the heart of these orcas’ habitat. Studies have found resident orcas spend up to 25% less time feeding when disturbed by boat noise.
The project would dredge about 1.1 million cubic yards of materials from the bottom of waterways around Seattle Harbor, the heart of Southern Residents’ critical habitat in the Salish Sea. The Army Corps considers about 245,000 yards of that material so toxic that it requires special hazardous-material processing; yet much of the pollution will remain suspended in the water and be ingested by the orcas.
Persistant organic pollutants such as DDT and PCBs have been found at high levels in Southern Residents, often stored in their fat cells. Those pollutants get released into the orcas’ bloodstreams when they’re malnourished and can harm reproduction, development and the ability to find food.
Urgent action is needed to prevent Southern Residents from spiraling toward extinction. The Center has demanded expanded critical habitat protections for these orcas, along with an analysis of how salmon fishing harms prey availability and a whale protection zone to minimize vessel noise and disturbance.