The U.S. navy has requested authorization to increase its underwater military activities, potentially harming mammals on the West Coast, including the already endangered southern resident killer whales.
The testing and training activities — which include torpedo fire, underwater sonar, and the detonation of bombs weighing over 450 kg at sea — have been conducted on the coast for decades, according to the navy.
But conservationists say now is not the time to be increasing those activities.
The bombs used in the military exercises “serve to sink ships and also pose very serious risks to whales, dolphins and other species,” says Michael Jasny, the Vancouver-based director of the Marine Mammal Protection Project at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), an environmental organization headquartered in New York.
“Overall, what the navy is planning is two and a half times more damage to marine mammals than it requested in its previous authorization period,” Jasny said.
51 orcas to be affected each year
The seven-year military program is expected to begin in November. It would take place across a vast region stretching from California to Alaska, including Puget Sound and the outer coast of Washington state.
The application, which is now under review, estimates that 51 killer whales will be negatively affected each year over the course of the program.
While the military activities won’t take place in Canadian waters, the effects of those activities will be felt by aquatic species that travel up and down the coast.
The navy is requesting permission from U.S. federal agencies to harm 29 species of marine mammals such as grey whales, striped dolphins, harbour seals and several populations of killer whales, including the endangered southern residents.
This population roams the waters off B.C.’s coast and can be spotted in the Strait of Georgia, Haro Strait, and the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
Southern resident killer whales are protected by law on both sides of the border. According to the recovery strategy developed under the Species at Risk Act, the population numbered only 74 individuals in 2018. The main threats affecting them are environmental contaminants, reduced availability of prey, noise pollution, and collisions with ships.
David Bain, marine biologist and chief scientist at Orca Conservancy, a Seattle-based organization dedicated to the southern residents’ recovery, says military exercises would block the movements of the southern resident whales up and down the coast. The whales need to move from place to place in order to find food.
“Denying access to that much food would be a serious problem,” Bain said.
The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) and the United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) have issued a proposed rule authorizing the navy’s increase of harm to marine mammals. The agencies consider that the almost two million occasions of harm to marine mammals over the seven-year period requested by the navy will have a “negligible impact.”
These so-called “incidental takings” include death, injuries, and behavioural disturbances of marine mammals. Explosions in the water, vessel strikes, and the use of sonar could result in the harm of marine mammals, writes the navy in its request.
‘Unacceptable’ potential damages, says Washington governor
Jay Inslee, the governor of Washington state, has already stated his opposition to the proposed rule in a letter to the Marine Fisheries Service.
“Simply put, Washington considers the level of incidental takings of marine mammals in the proposed rule to be unacceptable,” he wrote.
“I don’t think they will be careful enough since they have underestimated the distance at which their activities can cause damage” to the whales, he says.
The navy, however, does not anticipate any long-term consequences for the survival of the population, according to its application.
“That’s problematic obviously for where the species is at,” said Cameron Jefferies, a professor at the University of Alberta law school and an expert in environmental and maritime law.
Limited means of action
In a brief email, Fisheries and Oceans Canada assured that they will be consulted in the process of authorizing U.S. navy activities. No details were given on what the federal government plans to do to protect the southern resident killer whales in this context.
It’s difficult to think of a legal recourse on this side of the border if the navy’s request is granted, Jefferies says. For him, the main vehicle for action by Canadians on this issue remains political pressure.
That’s what Jasny thinks, too. He suggests people ask the Canadian government to prioritize the issue in its discussions with the U.S. government and the U.S. navy.
A fatal combination
The navy’s request comes shortly after the Supreme Court of Canada dismissed a challenge against the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project. The increased marine traffic associated with that project poses a serious threat to southern resident killer whales, experts say.
“It’s going to worsen the food shortage they face,” explains Bain. “You take a bad situation and make it worse.”
“We are very close to the point of no return,” Bain says.
The three experts agree that now is not the time to increase the pressure on the southern resident killer whales.
“We’re at a time where we really need to be stepping up our recovery actions and not doing things to make recovery more difficult,” says Bain.