Navy authorized to train where endangered orcas live for 7 more years

Two new Southern Resident orca calves born just months ago brought about a sense of hope for the J pod near Washington.

“This is the time to support the recovery of this population,” said Donna Sandstrom, The Whale Trail’s executive director.

With the arrival of the two new calves, there are now 74 of the endangered orcas left. Environmental groups worry nearby Navy training adds more dangers.

“We just can’t add any new risks to this population. We’ll be lucky enough to recover them with the risks that we already know about, like the lack of salmon, increased toxin accumulations, just the general issues of noise and disturbance,” said Sandstrom.

Sandstrom is part of The Whale Trail, a Seattle non-profit organization.

She said a recent approval from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration allows the Navy to continue military exercises in Puget Sound and coastal Washington waters for seven more years. The U.S. Navy has been authorized for decades to conduct local testing and training, which includes firing torpedoes, detonating bombs and piloting drones.

“In one ill-timed exercise, the Navy could take out a pod, an individual or the population,” said Sandstrom.

The ruling adds new measures that aim to reduce ship strikes, monitor environmental effects and add power-down zones near marine mammal activity. However, it also increases the potential yearly “take” from two to 51 orcas a year, which Sandstrom said is concerning.

“The Navy is not suggesting that they’re going to go out and harvest or kill that many animals. I want to be clear about that, but they are also proposing to do activities that could have a long-term, cumulative impact on the whales,” she said. “We’re really concerned about any potential impact on the endangered southern residents.”

The Navy stated it’s already careful not to interfere with marine life and that the Navy makes up less than 1% of vessel traffic in Pacific Northwest waters.