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U.S. Navy seeks renewed authorization to train and run tests where killer whales live

An application by the United States Navy to renew authorization for training and testing activities in southern resident killer whale habitat has scientists and environmental groups worried about the effects on the endangered species.
Orcas
In this photo provided by the Center for Whale Research, a newborn orca calf that researchers estimate is less than a week old surfaces beside its mother, known as J16, as they swim near San Juan Island, Washington, in 2007.

An application by the United States Navy to renew authorization for training and testing activities in southern resident killer whale habitat has scientists and environmental groups worried about the effects on the endangered species.

Twenty-nine organizations have signed a letter expressing concern that the permission requested by the navy would amount to “high levels of harassment” of southern resident killers whales, of which there are only 72.

Deborah Giles, a research scientist at the University of Washington’s Center for Conservation Biology, said testing and training activities have the potential to disrupt the whales’ foraging, breeding, socializing and resting habits.

“When you’re talking about a population that is desperate for food and nourishment, any sort of disruption in foraging is something to take seriously,” Giles said, adding the whales could be forced to travel out of their habitats for food, which is already scarce.

Giles works for the non-profit Wild Orca, which has signed the letter, along with environmental groups such as Friends of the San Juans, Save Our Wild Salmon and Orca Network.

The letter, addressed to the permitting office of the National Marine Fisheries Service, states that potential harassment by Navy activities could affect the entire population of southern resident killer whales.

“Given the small size of the endangered southern resident orca population today, and the fact that they travel in groups, harm to a single individual orca can easily mean a population-level effect,” the letter says.

The U.S. Navy has had authorization for decades to conduct testing and training in the waters of the Pacific Northwest, including in the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Puget Sound. The current permit, which authorizes activities such as testing and training with sonar, firing torpedoes and dropping bombs from aircraft, expires in November.

John Mosher, an environmental planner for the navy, said applications to renew authorization generally include changes from previous years because of updated equipment and new systems. The navy is looking at expanding some activities, including the use of sonar, which can temporarily deafen orcas.

The navy’s proposal also projects that training and testing activities would result in 51 potential incidents per year that disturb a southern resident killer whale’s behaviour, up from two per year previously.

Mosher said the increase is due in part to an increased use of sonar, as well as a change in the understanding of where the whales spend their time.

Giles and others who signed the letter are concerned that any increase in disturbance to the whales could have a significant impact on the species’ survival.

“Increasing the navy’s testing and training activities at this time is counter to what the endangered southern resident orcas need to have a chance at recovery. Without bold and immediate actions, the southern residents are likely to go extinct. Everything we can do now to protect the southern resident orcas is critical,” they write.

The U.S. Navy is still consulting with the National Marine Fisheries Service and revising its application to renew authorization, and will continue to look at how to mitigate the impacts of naval activities on southern resident killer whales, Mosher said.

“The Navy has had a large presence in the Northwest for decades. We do not have any history of adverse impacts on the marine environment. So our protective measures have been effective over time, and I think we’ve demonstrated that we can be good stewards,” Mosher said.

A final environmental impact assessment is expected in the fall.

regan-elliott@timescolonist.com