ECHO Program

Click to download the ECHO Program 2016 Annual Report

The Enhancing Cetacean Habitat and Observation (ECHO) Program is a Vancouver Fraser Port Authority-led initiative aimed at better understanding and managing the impact of shipping activities on at-risk whales throughout the southern coast of British Columbia.

Some of the key threats to whales in this region include:

  • acoustic disturbance (underwater noise)
  • physical disturbance (ship collisions)
  • environmental contaminants
  • availability of prey

The long-term goal of the ECHO Program is to develop mitigation measures that will lead to a quantifiable reduction in potential threats to whales as a result of shipping activities.

Learn more about the ECHO Program:

At-risk whales in our region

British Columbia has a productive coastal ecosystem that sustains populations of whales, porpoises and dolphins (cetaceans).

Orcas
Southern resident killer whales are listed as endangered by the Species at Risk Act. Image courtesy of Beam Reach

You may have had the pleasure of seeing some of these whales, such as southern and northern resident killer whales, humpback, fin, blue and sei whales. Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) has published Species at Risk Act Recovery Strategies and Action Plans for a number of at-risk whale species in the region designating critical habitat.

Much of the commercial vessel activity in the southern coast of British Columbia transits designated critical habitat of endangered southern resident killer whales as well as areas known to be of importance to other at-risk whales.

We are committed to conducting operations in a responsible and sustainable manner that safeguards and promotes continual protection of the environment. For these reasons, the ECHO Program has been developed.

Collaboration

The ECHO Program has benefited from early input and advice from scientists, shipping industries, conservation and environmental groups, First Nations individuals and government agencies to help the program focus efforts and set goals and objectives.

We wish to acknowledge and thank the generous support and participation of various organizations and individuals, which makes the ECHO Program possible:

Funding contributors
Fraser River Pile and Dredge
Trans Mountain
Transport Canada
Vancouver Fraser Port Authority

Significant in-kind contributors
Fisheries and Oceans Canada
JASCO Applied Sciences
Oceans Networks Canada
Vancouver Aquarium

Advisory working group
BC Coast Pilots
BC Ferries
Chamber of Shipping of BC
Cruise Lines International Association (North West & Canada)
Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO)
First Nations individuals
Hemmera
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)
Pacific Pilotage Authority
Shipping Federation of Canada
Transport Canada
Vancouver Aquarium
Vancouver Fraser Port Authority
Washington State Ferries
WWF-Canada

Project collaborators
All-Sea Enterprises
BC Coast Pilots
BC Ferries
Chamber of Shipping of BC
NOAA
Prince Rupert Port Authority
Seaspan

Federal government advisory committee
Environment Canada
Fisheries and Oceans Canada
Transport Canada
Vancouver Fraser Port Authority

Acoustic technical committee
Fisheries and Oceans Canada
JASCO Applied Sciences
NOAA
Oceans Networks Canada
Robert Allan Naval Architects
SMRU Consulting
Transport Canada
University of British Columbia
University of St. Andrews
Vancouver Aquarium
Washington State Ferries

Vessel operators committee
BC Coast Pilots
BC Ferries
Chamber of Shipping of BC
Cruise Lines International Association (North West & Canada)
Pacific Pilotage Authority
Shipping Federation of Canada
Transport Canada
Vancouver Fraser Port Authority
Washington State Ferries

Other engagement
Achieve Quieter Oceans (AQUO)
Green Marine
Marine Environmental Observation Prediction and Response Network (MEOPAR)
Nanaimo Port Authority
Ports of Seattle and Tacoma
Scripps Institution of Oceanography

Independent facilitation
Fraser Basin Council

Projects

The ECHO Program supports a series of individual short-term projects, scientific studies and education initiatives. These projects will provide a better understanding of vessel-related cumulative regional threats, informing the development of mitigation solutions.

The working group has helped identify underwater noise as a priority focus area based on impacts to species-at-risk, in particular the southern resident killer whales. To this end, the ECHO Program has convened an acoustics technical committee to offer expert advice on specific project approaches, goals and objectives related to underwater noise.

Additionally, a vessel operators committee has been convened to provide information and advice on how voluntary management measures may impact the shipping industry.

Other technical committees may be created to support different threat categories, as needed.

Timeline

The long term goal of the ECHO Program is to develop mitigation measures that will lead to a quantifiable reduction in potential threats to whales as a result of shipping activities. The ECHO Program timeline is shown below:

Project categories

The ECHO Program has structured its focus areas based on three threat categories, and advances projects in each category aimed at informing the development of measures to reduce threats to whales:

  • acoustic disturbance – Whales use sound to find their food, mate, communicate, and avoid danger. Vessel activity increases underwater noise and can impact these function.
  • physical disturbance – Vessel traffic has the potential to impact whales through ship collections or by altering their normal behaviour and movement.
  • environmental contaminants –  Contaminants can accumulate in a whale body, potentially impacting reproduction, development, and immune system functions.

The availability of prey, in particular Chinook salmon, for southern resident killer whales is critical to the species survival. Although the ECHO Program focus is on the effects of shipping and port activities, the importance of fish habitat supporting prey availability for whales is acknowledged. Our habitat enhancement program is focused on creating and enhancing fish and wildlife habitat, which may help address this threat to at-risk whales.

Acoustic disturbance (underwater noise)

ECHO Program - Underwater Listening Station
An underwater listening station has been deployed under the inbound shipping lane in the Strait of Georgia.

The Fisheries and Oceans Canada Recovery Strategy for killer whales identifies disturbance, including underwater noise, as one of the current threats impacting killer whales in British Columbia. Whales use sound to navigate, communicate, and locate prey. The recovery strategy also suggests that increased vessel traffic is responsible for the increase in ambient noise levels detected over the last 100 years. For this reason, underwater noise is a priority study area the ECHO Program is addressing.

The acoustic technical committee is made up of technical experts including marine mammal researchers, naval architects and acoustic specialists who have helped develop a work plan for the ECHO Program to address underwater noise.

Projects currently underway or recently completed relating to underwater noise include:

  • launching an underwater noise listening station in the Strait of Georgia, in partnership with Transport Canada, Ocean Networks Canada and JASCO Applied Sciences, where ships “weigh in” as they transit over the station providing a better understanding of the noise levels coming from different vessels
  • monitoring baseline regional ambient underwater noise conditions through a network of hydrophones
  • identifying and quantifying the underwater noise contributions from various vessel sectors to overall regional ocean noise
  • presenting the impacts of underwater noise on marine mammals to local mariners through an education outreach program
  • using a computer model to compare the behavioural response of killer whales to large commercial vessel noise versus the noise generated by whale watching boats
  • adding vessel underwater noise reduction criteria, to the EcoAction* program to include harbour due rate discounts for quieter ships
  • launching a voluntary vessel slowdown trial in the summer of 2017 to study the relationship between underwater noise and commercial vessel speed and its effect on the Southern Resident Killer Whale

Computer modelling may be used to predict how various mitigation methods could reduce underwater noise. These mitigations will then be tested or trialed in the ocean.

The aim of these projects is to inform potential mitigation options and develop innovative solutions to reduce underwater noise in the region. Potential mitigation measures may include such things as incentives or recognition for the use of green vessel technology, changes to operational activities of ocean going vessels, recognition of certification programs for quiet vessels, and/or the development of noise criteria for vessels entering the port. The Vancouver Fraser Port Authority’s incentive program, EcoAction, or the Green Marine program may be avenues for implementing proposed mitigation options.

ECHO Program underwater noise infographic
Click on the image above to view a PDF. For more information about the science behind it, please see footnote references.

Underwater soundscape

Sound clip Details
Listen to sound clip Listen to southern resident killer whales. Recorded August 22, 2014 off the southern coast of Vancouver Island, in the Juan de Fuca Strait.
Courtesy of Transport Canada, Fisheries and Oceans Canada and the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority.
Listen to sound clip Listen to southern resident killer whales.
Courtesy of Dr. Lance Barrett-Lennard, Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre.
Listen to sound clip This sound clip demonstrates how whale calls can be masked by vessel noise. Listen to the sound of a large vessel passing by a pod of whales.
Courtesy of OrcaLab.

Physical disturbance (ship collisions)

Aerial surveillance plane
Aerial surveillance planes are used to spot whales and track their distribution and abundance. Photo: John Ford/DFO

As identified in the Fisheries and Oceans Canada Recovery Strategy for killer whales, and blue, fin, and sei whales, vessel traffic has increased dramatically in recent years. This increase in traffic has the potential to disrupt whales both through ship collisions, as well as by altering their normal behaviour and movement. This type of physical disturbance is one of the areas of study for the ECHO Program.

Projects currently underway relating to physical disturbance include:

  • supporting Fisheries and Oceans Canada’s survey of large whale distribution off south western Vancouver Island using aerial surveillance and satellite tagging, to help identify key areas where the risk of physical disturbance or collision is greatest
  • supporting the development of the Mariner’s Guide to Whales, Dolphins and Porpoises of Western Canada to help mariner’s identify marine mammals and shipping hot spots

Other initiatives under consideration include:

  • developing a real-time notification system to inform vessels of whale presence

Environmental contaminants

There are a number of chemical and biological (such as invasive species) contaminants present in our oceans. Measuring contaminant levels in the bodies of killer whales or other marine mammals is challenging. Studying contaminants in the water, sediment and food sources (such as shellfish) of the marine mammal’s environment is one way to understand the effects on the whales.

The ECHO Program is supporting the Vancouver Aquarium to collect and analyze samples of sediment and mussels to establish baseline levels of environmental contamination and inform best practices in and around the water.

Another environmental contaminant study being considered involves environmental sampling before, during and after in-water hull cleaning. This will determine if chemical or biological contaminants are released to the aquatic environment during cleaning.

Mitigation options being explored could include the development of, or updates to, various best practices and standard operating procedures for both vessels and port tenants.

Resources

ECHO Program – 2016 Annual Report [PDF]
ECHO Program – 2015 Annual Report [PDF]
ECHO Program – Program summary [PDF]
ECHO Program – Study summary: vessel quieting [PDF]
ECHO Program – Study summary: regional ocean noise contributors [PDF]

Information for mariners

Mariner’s Guide to Whales, Dolphins and Porpoises of Western Canada
ECHO Program – Infographic: Effects of vessel underwater noise on whales [PDF]
ECHO Program – Infographic: Footnote References [PDF]

Fisheries and Oceans Canada recovery plans and action strategies

Recovery Strategy for Northern and Southern Resident Killer Whales [PDF]
Action Plan for the Northern and Southern Resident Killer Whales [DRAFT] [PDF]
Recovery Strategy for the Transient Killer Whale [PDF]
Recovery Strategy for the North Pacific Humpback Whale [PDF]
Recovery Strategy for Blue, Fin, and Sei Whales [PDF]
Partial Action Plan for Blue, Fin, Sei and North Pacific Right Whales [PDF]