Sierra Club says Vancouver Island orca rubbing beaches threatened by proposed old-growth logging

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      A B.C. government plan to sell logging rights to watershed land on eastern Vancouver Island—including a significant amount of old-growth forest—poses a threat to a unique stretch of orca "rubbing beaches", an environmental group says.

      The Sierra Club B.C. said in a recent news release that the government-owned B.C. Timber Sales (BCTS) will be advertising for sale sometime in 2018 five blocks of land in the Schmidt Creek watershed that contain 221 hectares of old-growth forest.

      The old growth to be logged is mostly on steep slopes, which brings the risk of landslides to the area on northern Vancouver Island, near Johnstone Strait, which is in close proximity to rock beaches frequented by orcas that have historically travelled to relatively shallow waters there to rub against rocks and pebbles.

      The Schmidt Creek watershed, located above the beaches, could, if subjected to road construction and logging, deposit sediments that would affect "the condition of the gravels that the orcas are drawn to", the April 9 release stated.

      Paul Spong, a long-time orca researcher based near Robson Bight, the location of the well-known beaches, said in the release: “These orca rubbing beaches are a vitally important cultural tradition unique to this community of whales. 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.”

      The Sierra Club is calling on the government to order BCTS to postpone any logging or road-building plans for the watershed "because of very high conservation values".

      Although scientists aren't sure about all the reasons orcas might use the rubbing beaches, Spong said it is a long-time social practice for the largest members of the dolphin family in southern B.C.

      “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," he said in the release. "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.

      “The orcas’ use of the beaches is very much a social activity. 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.”