There’s a new threat to orca whales on BC’s coast, and it’s probably not what you think.
Old-growth logging? But how can that be?
It turns out that BC’s northern resident orcas have a long and important cultural tradition of rubbing themselves on certain beaches on northern Vancouver Island. According to one expert, it’s a fun social activity that is rather like visiting a massage parlour. Amazing, right?
But the beaches that these sensitive, highly intelligent creatures visit to rub themselves are threatened by old-growth logging. BC Timber Sales (BCTS) has plans for old-growth logging and road-building in the Schmidt Creek watershed, which could lead to increasing sediment deliver and even landslides that could be disastrous for these unique rubbing beaches.
Not one watershed on eastern Vancouver Island is fully protected, yet the BC government continues to enable logging of endangered old-growth forests at a rate of three square meters per second. Will the risk of losing unique orca whale rubbing beaches be enough to convince this government to take action for endangered old-growth?
The Schmidt Creek watershed, near Johnstone Straight on northern Vancouver Island, was subject to a logging moratorium from 1992-97 due to concerns about logging practices increasing sediment delivery and impacts on the adjacent orca rubbing beaches, most likely affecting the condition of the gravels that the orcas are drawn to. A provincial report from 2003 about the rubbing beaches stated “given the nearly unique use of the beach by killer whales, management of the area should be cautious.”
Dr. Paul Spong from Orcalab is concerned about the proposed logging operations:
“These orca rubbing beaches are a vitally important cultural tradition unique to this community of whales,” said Dr. Spong. “We’ve been concerned about declining quality of rubbing beaches in this area for a number of years, and feel the risks involved in logging of the Schmidt Creek watershed are simply too great to allow the logging to proceed. If a landslide occurs, it could be disastrous for the rubbing beaches.”
Whales only use beaches with specific characteristics for rubbing and impacts on the watershed, such as increased sediment load as a result of logging or road construction, would likely lead to the loss of these characteristics.
As Dr. Paul Spong says, “the rubbing beaches are vitally important to the orcas because their use reflects a very long tradition of the orcas of the Northern Resident Community. It’s a cultural tradition that is many generations long and is unique to this community. They are one of the attractions that draw the orcas back to the Johnstone Strait year after year (the others are fish and company). Quite often when the orcas come into Johnstone Strait, they make a beeline for the rubbing beaches. The beaches were included in the Robson Bight (Michael Bigg) Ecological Reserve when it was created in 1982 as a recognition of their importance to the orcas.”
He has witnessed this over 30 years that he’s been observing the orca whales. “The orcas’ use of the beaches is very much a social activity,” says Dr. Spong. “Rubbing usually happens in groups, and in past years when there were more groups coming into Johnstone Strait, they used to line up taking turns to rub, kind of like aircrcraft lining up on a runway. We think rubbing is a lot of fun for them, a bit like visiting a massage parlour, and it is quite often accompanied by unusual vocalisations.”
Sierra Club BC is calling on the BC government to direct government-owned BC Timber Sales (BCTS) to hold off plans for old-growth logging and road-building in the Schmidt Creek watershed because of very high conservation values, including proximity to these unique rubbing beaches.
The BC Timber Sales plan shows a string of five blocks to be advertised for sale in 2018, amounting to 221 hectares of old-growth. The majority of the roadbuilding and logging in Schmidt Creek is planned on steep slopes and will result in risk of landslides, a danger made worse by increasingly severe extreme weather due to climate change.
A September 2017 Forest Practices Board (FPB) report ‘Resource Road Construction in Steep Terrain’ (special investigation) investigated operational issues on steep slopes that lead to erosion and landslides. The report found only 38 percent (10 of 26) road segments examined “met all the criteria for a safe and environmentally sound road and overall resulted in good practices.”
Sierra Club BC mapping shows that together with the adjacent Lower Tsitika River Provincial Park, this watershed forms one of the few remaining relatively intact old-growth areas on Vancouver Island.
Logging Schmidt Creek would put at risk not just the orca whales, but also one of the few remaining relatively intact old-growth areas providing habitat for old-growth dependent species such as marbled murrelets and northern goshawk that are at very high risk of extirpation across large parts of the island. The province announced increased habitat protection for these two species in February, however, with a timeline of 5 -7 years, these steps would come too late to set aside not yet identified habitat in Schmidt Creek.
The BC government promised to take action for old-growth. Yet while we wait for a sign that they intend to keep their promise, we are losing endangered old-growth rainforest at a rate of two soccer fields per hour.
The Schmidt Creek logging proposal is a dramatic example of the need for the BC government to modernize land-use plans for Vancouver Island working with First Nations to determine long-term, science-based protection options, and interim protection for endangered rainforest hotspots in the meantime; and to use government control of BC Timber Sales (BCTS) to quickly phase out issuing timber sales in endangered old-growth forests.
Sierra Club BC shared these concerns with the Nanwakolas Council in early March and welcomes their initiative to send conservation stewards to take a closer look at the risk for the beaches in April.
Video footage of orca rubbing, courtesy of Orcalab:
Feature image: Orcalab