Northwest Tribes to U.S. Coast Guard: Orcas and Oil Tankers Don’t Mix

U.S. Tribes challenge Coast Guard’s failure to protect orcas on the brink from oil tanker traffic


Steve Mashuda, Earthjustice, (206) 343-7340, ext. 1027


Francesca Hillery, Tulalip Tribes, (360) 913-2646 


April Leigh, Suquamish Tribe, (360) 394-7102

Today, the Tulalip and Suquamish Tribes, represented by Earthjustice, took steps to protect endangered Southern Resident Killer Whales from oil tanker traffic and risk of oil spills in the Salish Sea. 

The TransMountain project will add a seven-fold spike in oil tanker traffic to the already-crowded waters of the Salish Sea.

The tribes filed a legal challenge in federal court over the U.S Coast Guard’s failure to consult with the National Marine Fisheries Service on the harmful impacts to orcas from shipping traffic, including the massive increase in oil tankers resulting from Canada’s recently approved pipeline through British Columbia. The TransMountain pipeline project and the resulting increases in oil tanker traffic through U.S. waters in the Salish Sea signals major threats to already endangered Orcas.

“Killer whales are revered by our people. They are part of our ancestral marine ecology and continue to be very important to our culture. They now face their biggest threat to date: the expansion of the TransMountain pipeline,” said Marie Zackuse, Tulalip Tribes Chairwoman. “The increase in tanker traffic and the possibility of a catastrophic oil spill put the entire Salish Sea at risk. We cannot ignore the devastating impacts the TransMountain pipeline will bring to our killer whales, the fish we harvest, and the environment on which our treaty rights depend.”

Killer whales are iconic animals in the Pacific Northwest, but hold special significance for the tribes of the Salish Sea.  The Tulalip Tribes and the Suquamish Tribe have relationships with the killer whale that stretch back to time immemorial.

“The Suquamish Tribe continues to oppose the TransMountain pipeline project. The tanker traffic it generates would be disastrous for our treasured resident orca whales, treaty fishing activities and the high probability of a catastrophic oil spill that would jeopardize our ancient way of life,” said Leonard Forsman, Suquamish Tribal Chairman

The TransMountain project will add a seven-fold spike in oil tanker traffic to the already-crowded waters of the Salish Sea. Orcas are endangered in both the United States and Canada. 

The U.S. Coast Guard failed to consult with the National Marine Fisheries Service, as required by the Endangered Species Act, when it approved the traffic separation schemes that are required to regulate the safe transit of large ocean vessels and protect marine resource.

The TransMountain pipeline project, spearheaded by Texas-based energy infrastructure company Kinder Morgan, was recently approved by the Canadian government. The pipeline, from Alberta’s tar sands oil fields to an oil shipping terminal in a suburb of Vancouver, British Columbia will result in a huge increase in tanker traffic through Boundary Pass, Haro Strait, and the Strait of Juan de Fuca in Washington state.

A major oil spill would likely cause the extinction of the remaining 78 critically endangered southern resident killer whales that inhabit these same waters. Also, added noise and disruptions from increased oil tanker traffic will further disrupt the killer whale’s ability to hunt, rest, and survive.

“The orca population is struggling just to survive—the last thing they need is the threat posed by 400 more oil tankers a year transiting their home waters,” said Steve Mashuda, managing attorney for Earthjustice’s oceans program. “The Coast Guard was required to work with NMFS to provide sufficient protection to our orcas when it adopted its traffic regulations several years ago. The threat posed by the additional oil tankers exporting Canada’s tar sands oil turns this past mistake into an emergency.”

Read the legal document.

Killer Whale Background:

Native American and First Nation peoples revere orcas, often depicting them in their artwork, history and literature.

The killer whale plays an important part in the Tulalip Tribe’s oral history, and the early stories tell of the killer whale saving Tulalip people from starvation. The killer whale is held in high honor and respect and is the animal that represents the Tulalip people.

The people of the Suquamish Tribe have always fished and hunted alongside these killer whales in the waters of the Salish Sea and the orcas are interwoven into the Suquamish Tribe’s cultural and spiritual practices.  

On October 29, 2013, three dozen orcas surrounded a Washington State ferry that was transporting 500 artifacts, many up to 2,000 years old, that were taken nearly 60 years ago from Old Man House, the home of Chief Seattle. The orcas surrounded the ferry as it pulled into the ferry terminal on Bainbridge Island when these artifacts were being returned to the Suquamish Museum after being temporarily held at the Burke Museum at the University of Washington. The Suquamish people believe the orcas were welcoming the artifacts home as they made their way back to the Port Madison Indian Reservation.

An orca spyhops to survey its surroundings. (iStockphoto)
More than 100,000 people spoke out in favor of Puget Sound's few remaining southern resident orcas when large agribusiness interests sought to remove endangered species protections from the orcas in order to take more water from California's salmon streams. The government sided with science and public opinion and kept the southern residents orcas protected. (iStockphoto)

Additional Resources

About Earthjustice

Earthjustice is the premier nonprofit environmental law organization. We wield the power of law and the strength of partnership to protect people's health, to preserve magnificent places and wildlife, to advance clean energy, and to combat climate change. We are here because the earth needs a good lawyer.