The federal government is seeking a way to regulate underwater shipping noise as part of its plan to protect an endangered group of killer whales from increased oil tanker traffic off Vancouver.

The news comes as environmental groups are poised to file a new lawsuit challenging the Liberal cabinet’s approval of Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, alleging the government failed to mitigate the project’s impact on the iconic southern resident killer whales.

Fisheries Minister Dominic LeBlanc told The Canadian Press he has been working with Transport Minister Marc Garneau on a revamped recovery plan for the approximately 80 remaining whales that spend about half their lives in the busy Salish Sea.

"Certain ships emit more noise than others, certain kinds of propellers and other things in the water are noisier than others," said LeBlanc.

"There is an engineering and a scientific way that the noise can be limited by regulation. We would hope to get to a circumstance where there would be no net increase in the noise — in spite of the potentially increased tanker traffic. We don’t yet have what the final answer looks like."

LeBlanc acknowledged that the fate of the emblematic British Columbia marine mammals, formally listed as endangered since 2005, has been further complicated by the Liberal government’s approval late last month of an expanded Trans Mountain oil pipeline.

Under the plan, about 34 tankers a month will move diluted bitumen from the pipeline terminal in Burnaby, B.C., through Burrard Inlet and into Juan de Fuca Strait, up from about five a month currently making the passage.

Shipping noise interferes with the ability of killer whales to track prey and communicate with one another in the hunt, and is considered one of several key stressors on the population, along with declining chinook salmon stocks and environmental pollutants.

"I’m not minimizing it, and we’re prepared to deal with it," LeBlanc said. "But it is a tiny fraction of the total marine traffic that has existed for a long time and that is on an increase because of other international, global economic factors — separate and apart from the pipeline."

Transport Minister Marc Garneau said in an email the government "will also be looking to our U.S. neighbour on a join noise mitigation approach."

"In addition, given that highest vessel traffic is from ferries, we will also be working with BC Ferries on possible approaches that will help us achieve our objectives."

Three environmental groups sought a judicial review in June of the National Energy Board’s approval of the pipeline, arguing the regulator failed in its duty to consider the Species At Risk Act as it applied to the project’s impact on the killer whales’ habitat. That court case remains on hold, but could be superseded later today when the same groups file suit against the federal cabinet’s decision to approve.

"If you can’t mitigate effects on an endangered population, your project cannot proceed. So we’re saying that this is unlawful," Misty MacDuffee, a biologist with the Raincoast Conservation Foundation, said in an interview. "They’ve just arbitrarily decided not to adhere to federal legislation."

Raincoast, Living Oceans and Ecojustice were all part of the original June lawsuit against the National Energy Board process and will now challenge the Liberal government. MacDuffee said she welcomes the government’s stated commitment to the whales’ recovery but is skeptical of Liberal promises to regulate shipping noise for international oil tankers.

"I’m really curious on how — within the next year or two — they’re going to mitigate," she said. "Because mitigation means refitting and redesigning vessels."

As part of a draft recovery plan for the southern resident killer whales released in June and a subsequent $1.5−billion oceans protection program announced in November, the government earmarked $340 million over five years for whale protections, including improved monitoring so ships can be immediately alerted and directed away from whale pods.

LeBlanc said he and Garneau would be coming back to cabinet "with precise regulatory elements that will ensure that we have mitigated the effect of the noise, and things like access to prey — chinook management — and (ensure) land−based pollutants that contaminate certain bodies of water in which these whales are resident are reduced and or eliminated."

Fisheries will release its amended recovery plan in January — updated after the draft plan received some 11,000 public comments, many of which LeBlanc described as "very precise and, we think, rather compelling suggestions of ways to reduce the factors that have put such a stress on this population."

Regulatory changes under the Canada Shipping Act will come later in the spring following consultations with the shipping industry, he said.

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Thanks for bringing this issue to the public's attention. Cetaceans are negatively affected by shipping noise, but so are many species of fishes, a fact that has received very little attention. One particularly important fish species is Pacific herring. It is at the centre of B.C.'S coastal marine food web and a favourite prey item of chinook salmon. Chinook are large and carry a lot of fat, and are a favourite item in the diet of the southern resident population of killer whales. If herring avoid noisy areas the chinook may also leave, affecting the whales' food supply. Our research on net-penned herring showed that they moved away from the sounds of fishing vessels, especially from sounds of the largest vessels. As the largest one was 20 m long, the 245-m Aframax tankers are likely to elicit a much stronger response from the fish. Herring may not be as charismatic as orcas, but they promote the orcas' survival.