Monday, April 9, 2012

Puget Sound Orca Fatality: Canadian naval exercises may be a root cause

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is conducting an investigation into the death of an Orca, aka Killer Whale, that was found bruised and bleeding on a Washington state shoreline in early February. Test are being conducted to determine the exact cause of death but one likely candidate, according to several whale conservation groups, is Canadian naval war games - including the use of underwater sonar - that took place nearby just a few days prior to the orca washing ashore at Puget Sound.

As reported by the QMI Agency for Canada's, Brian Gorman of NOAA said,
"We take really seriously any kind of injury, or certainly death, in the population, as there are so few animals. They don't interbreed to any great if you lose one or two animals, it's a serious threat to the overall health of the population."

The dead orca was a member of a pod of endangered orcas that ply the waters between Washington state and British Columbia. The pod consists of only 90 whales and are protected by the Endangered Species Act and Marine Mammal Protection Act - at least when they are in US waters.

According to the Center for Whale Research, the pod was spotted soon after the Canadian naval exercise began in waters much further south than normal for these whales. Something was driving them southward.

"HMCS Ottawa [the frigate involved in the exercise] used its sonar system in critical habitat of the endangered southern resident killer whales," the Center for Whale Research said. "The unprecedented appearance of these whales in these waters...suggests that southern residents were present in the area — and may have been significantly affected by the exercise."

Canada has implemented tighter restrictions regarding proximity of whale watching boats and other vessels, limiting them to a distance of 200 meters from any sighted orcas. However, the new regulations do not apply to Canadian military vessels.

Although US naval activities are often a source of controversy, particularly with regards to powerful underwater sonar, Gorman noted that US navy vessels have an established protocol.
"There are, however, arrangements we have with our navy about making sure that when they are conducting activities that could cause a problem with marine mammals that they post a lookout and not conduct these activities when marine mammals are present within a certain distance."