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Navy receives approval for exercises that could increase harm to Washington orcas

2 Orcas (Andreina Schoeberlein/Flickr)
November 19, 2020

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has approved a request from the U.S. Navy to continue military exercises in Puget Sound and coastal Washington waters that could potentially harm the endangered Southern Resident orca population.

The approval of the Navy’s proposal will increase the potential “take” of Southern Resident orcas — “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 the new rule will allow it to take up to 51 orcas per year until 2027.

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

The increase in the number of takes comes after Naval studies showed the population of Southern Resident killer whales in the sound was far denser than previous models showed.

According to the ruling, which is scheduled to be published in the Federal Register on Nov. 12, the approval of the Navy’s proposal came with several provisions to limit the Navy’s impact on marine life. They include but are not limited to:

— The use of defined power-down and shutdown zones based on marine mammal activity.

— Measures to reduce the likelihood of ship strikes.

— Activity limitations in certain areas and times that are biologically important for marine mammals.

— Implementation of a Notification and Reporting Plan for dead or live marine mammals.

— Implementation of a robust monitoring plan to improve NOAA’s understanding of the environmental effects resulting from the Navy training and testing activities.

The original proposal received harsh criticism from state leaders and activists concerned over the potential harm to the endangered Southern Resident killer whale population in Washington’s waters.

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 said 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.”


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