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U.S. Navy, state leaders at odds over proposal that could affect Washington’s orcas

Orca 12/20/14 (Mike Charest/Flickr)

The U.S. Navy is requesting permission from the National Marine Fisheries Service to conduct military exercises in Puget Sound and coastal Washington waters that would potentially harm the endangered Southern Resident orca population.

The impacts from the Navy’s request were determined to be “negligible” by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the proposal appears to be headed for approval.

This would increase the potential “take” of Southern Resident orca — “take” means the attempted or actual harassment, hunting, capturing or killing of any marine mammal. Currently, the Navy is authorized to take up to two Southern Resident orcas per year but is asking that to increase to 51 per year.

The testing and training involves various activities, including firing torpedoes and projectiles, detonating bombs, piloting undersea drones and using sonar.

Attempts by The News Tribune to determine why the Navy wants such a large increase in the potential take number were unsuccessful.

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The proposal is seeing opposition from state leaders and activists concerned over the potential harm to the endangered Southern Resident killer whale population in Washington’s waters.

Washington’s Department of Ecology responded, saying continued naval exercises pose a serious threat to the Southern Resident orcas and asked the Navy to increase the whale buffer zone, cease sonar activities when orcas are present and for the Navy to use real-time alert systems similar to those used by Washington State Ferries.

In July, 29 organizations — including Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium, the Seattle Aquarium, Northwest Trek Wildlife Park and the Natural Resources Defense Council — signed on to a letter asking the National Marine Fisheries Service to require additional mitigation measures to significantly reduce the incidental take of Southern Resident orcas.

In September, the Navy published a supplemental environmental impact statement for the Northwest Training and Testing program that included public comments from state leaders and responses from the Navy. In the statement, Gov. Jay Inslee asked that the Navy decrease sonar exposure, limit the amount of impulsive sound and monitor the effects of training and testing of unmanned systems on the environment.

“I am concerned about the rapid increase of unmanned underwater systems and their use in the Puget Sound and offshore coastline,” Inslee said. “As the Navy tests emerging technology and trains on new systems, it is critical that we understand the implications of this on our undersea environment.”

The Navy says it is already careful not to interfere with marine life. According to the Northwest Training and Testing program environmental impact statement, the Navy makes up less than 1% of vessel traffic in Pacific Northwest waters and the Navy has “developed numerous new mitigation areas to avoid or reduce potential impacts on marine species.”

A spokesperson for the National Marine Fisheries Service said Southern Resident orcas would only be subject to Level B harassment — defined as acts that have the potential to disturb, but not injure.

A final decision on the proposed rule will be made in November and, if approved, would last through November 2027.

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© 2020 The News Tribune