Clean Energy Investigative Application Sparks Whale Controversy

One of a renewable energy firm’s worst nightmares began to unfold just over a week ago when nearby residents raised the alarm that SRM Projects Vancouver Island tidal energy investigative application for Blackney Passage is in an area designated as critical habitat for northern resident killer whales.  The situation gained international attention, including local press in Victoria at Times Colonist Story and Times Colonist Editorial.

How can something like this happen?  This has been a common question among many concerned people who have been submitting feedback.  To be fair, the public investigative licensing process is, by design, intended to uncover important issues and it is clear the process has worked here.  During the last week we dedicated countless hours to talk to people about their concerns and educate ourselves more about the designated critical habitat area.

Critical habitat areas are a designation used by the Canadian Species At Risk Act (SARA) to describe the habitat that is necessary for the survival or recovery of a listed wildlife species that is identified as the species’ critical habitat in the recovery strategy or in an action plan for the species.  Once critical habitat is identified by the Minister, no person shall destroy any part of the critical habitat.  With respect to the killer whale populations around Vancouver Island, summer and fall critical habitat was identified in Recovery Strategy for the Northern and Southern Resident Killer Whales in Canada, issued by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans in August of 2011.  Despite our awareness that the DFO was involved in an associated court case, we were not aware of the implications of the decision as the critical habitat area maps were not widely published by the media and because we don’t have biologists (who would be more likely to be aware of habitat issues such as this) on staff.

While there is a legal requirement to protect critical habitat, it differs from protected areas because it doesn’t show up on geographical information systems (GIS) mapping maintained by the Government of BC.  In this day of the internet, where Google Earth and other programs are increasingly used to research potential sites for land development, we are relying more and more on available map sources to screen for things like important environmental values.  During the screening process for the Blackney Passage site we consulted the BC GIS maps and BC Marine Conservation Atlas for protected areas but unfortunately, that didn’t alert us to the critical habitat designation and, coming from a place far from the site, we did not have the local knowledge.  The lesson for us is that we can’t rely on a protected area search as a screen for critical environmental values.  Perhaps the Government of BC will consider adding additional map layers in their GIS database to identify critical habitat areas – food for thought.

Now that this unfortunate situation has unfolded, however, we need to resolve it, and we are working diligently with members of OrcaLab and the local community to agree on a resolution that will be a win-win for both killer whales and clean energy in BC.  Aside from a previous demonstration project at Race Rocks and a planned demonstration project at Canoe Pass, we don’t have much experience with tidal energy yet.  While preliminary research and demonstration studies from Ireland and elsewhere seem to indicate that tidal energy generation technology will not have significant environmental effects, we need to continue to introduce it here in small steps, outside of critical habitat areas, to gain local application knowledge and social acceptance.