WA Dept of Ecology approves expansion of Navy war games activity with conditions

The Washington State Dept of Ecology has allowed the Navy to continue harrassing marine animals as they have for decades. Is it any real wonder why our Orcas are in serious decline? The death of a thousand cuts. Won’t it be a great day when we value our environment more than our military industrial complex? As if we weren’t outspending all other countries. Let’s quickly review before reviewing what the state has allowed:

The U.S. spends more than 144 other countries combined. And the U.S. spends more than the next seven countries combined.


And what does the Navy wants to do in the areas where the dwindling number of Orcas live?

• Torpedo Exercise (non-explosive; Unmanned Underwater Vehicle Training)
• At-Sea Sonar Testing
• Mine Countermeasure and Neutralization Testing
• Propulsion Testing
• Undersea Warfare Testing
• Vessel Signature Evaluation
• Acoustic and Oceanographic Research
• Radar and Other Systems Testing;
• Simulant Testing – Dispertion of chemical warfare simulation.
• Intelligence Surveillance, Reconnaissance/Electronic Warfare Triton Testing

And what does Ecology want them to do to “mitigate the possible ‘taking’ (meaning harrassment or otherwise disturbing) of 51 Orcas’ which is what the Navy themselves says might happen? Here is a partial section of the document.

Any marine mammals exposed to sonar or other acoustic effects outside of the coastal zone are not likely to remain affected if the animal were to return to the coastal zone, because the vast majority of predicted effects are temporary effects to behavior, which would no longer be present when the animal is in the coastal zone.

Active sonar is required for this activity and may result in a wide range of effects from injury to behavioral changes to loss of hearing, and depends on the frequency and duration of the source, the physical characteristics of the environment, and the species (among other complex factors).

Explosives are required for this activity. The use of explosives could result in a disturbance to behavior, or lethal or non-lethal injuries (quantitative analysis done for this activity did not predict any lethal injuries for marine mammals). Most explosives would occur in the water column, minimizing effects to habitat.

Ecology and other Washington State officials and resource agencies are concerned that, without Ecology’s conditions, the Navy’s activities will have significant long-term effects on Washington coastal resources. Given the numerous marine animals and other resources that are likely to suffer the effects from the Navy’s new activities compounded by previously authorized activities,

Ecology is highlighting the effects to the Southern Resident orcas and other large cetaceans. As described in the CD, the Navy’s
mitigation measures are insufficient to provide necessary protections to the vulnerable, declining populations of key marine mammals, particularly Southern Resident orcas, of Washington’s coastal zone and lead to the conclusion that conditions are necessary to alleviate adverse effects.
Ongoing Naval exercises in the air and water around Washington pose a serious threat to Southern Resident orcas, and the impact of new and expanded activities will further threaten this vulnerable
population. Ecology’s conditions will help minimize the threats to these animals. An icon of the Pacific Northwest, Southern Resident orcas have captured the hearts of Washington’s residents, citizens, and
visitors and hold significant cultural value for Washington’s tribes. With the apparent loss of three whales last summer 2019, Southern Resident orcas appear to have a population of just 73 whales—the lowest population level in more than 40 years. Given this declining population, the loss of even one more whale could greatly undermine recovery efforts for decades. The most up-to-date information on the Southern Resident orca population, must be relied on, and assessments of impacts must be based on current data, which projects the existing population of 73 whales. Thus, the potential harm of the Navy’s activities on this vulnerable population
has been underestimated. With such a small and shrinking population, the impact of each take is amplified within the population.

The Navy’s actions could result in a total of 51 annual “takes” a year of Southern Resident orcas in the form of Level B harassment. Given the imperiled nature of this population, this number of takes threatens a significant impact on the population from the Navy’s training and testing activities.

Furthermore, these take numbers do not account for the fact that Southern Resident orcas generally travel in pods and thus likely underestimate the potential adverse impact to this precarious population since activities could impact multiple animals at once. Additionally, three orcas appear to be carrying young, which makes them more vulnerable, as well as their future calves.

The cumulative impact of repeated exposures to the same whales over time needs to be seriously considered, and Ecology’s conditions can address these impacts. The Navy’s testing and training activities have already been authorized twice before, and are likely to continue into the future.
According to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, “Due to the longevity of Southern Resident orcas and the estimated percentage of take for the population [being] so high (68%), the effects of take will be compounded over time and may have cumulative effects, such as behavioral abandonment of key foraging areas and adverse, long term effects on hearing and echolocation.”

Instances of temporary hearing loss, such as the Temporary Threshold Shifts (TTS) can be cumulative and lead to long-term hearing loss. This could have a significant impact on Southern Resident orcas,
which rely on hearing for communication, feeding, and ship avoidance.

In addition, Level B Harassment can disrupt “migration, surfacing, nursing, breeding, feeding, or sheltering, to a point where such behavioral patterns are abandoned or significantly altered,” all behaviors critical to survival of the Southern Resident orcas. Given the many stresses already faced by
this endangered population, repeated harassment on this scale could be significant and even lead to mortality.

The Navy’s use of mid-frequency sonar can impact wildlife within 2,000 square miles and mine explosives can cause death or injury. Although these activities may affect a wide range of marinemammals, the potential impact of these activities on endangered Southern Resident orcas is of
particular concern, given their dangerously low population size. This is the third consecutiveauthorization period during which the Navy may be approved for such testing and training exercises andthese or similar activities are likely to continue for decades. For long-lived marine species, the effects oftake will be compounded over time and may have cumulative effects, such as behavioral abandonment of key foraging areas and adverse, long-term effects on hearing and echolocation. Again, the Navy finds
these effects of minor significance, a finding with which Ecology disagrees.
Gray whales are currently undergoing an unexplained die-off leading to 352 strandings between January 2019 and July 2020, including 44 strandings along the coast of Washington alone. NOAA is investigating the die-off as an Unusual Mortality Event. While it is not clear what specifically is driving this event, many animals show signs of “poor to thin body condition.”

Because the cause of the Unusual Mortality Event is unknown, the Navy cannot cite an increasing population and then assert that its activities for a
seven-year period are insignificant because the health of the gray whale population could decline.

For several species, including harbor seals, Dall’s porpoise, and harbor porpoise, the Navy’s near constant harassment every year for a seven–year period could significantly damage the population of those species. For example, the Navy’s proposal could lead to a take 30 times the abundance of the Hood Canal population of harbor seals every year, 3,084 percent of population abundance, and similarly authorizes high levels of takes for Southern Puget Sound harbor seals (168 percent of population
abundance). This high level of take could lead to interruptions in foraging that could lead to reproductive loss for female harbor seals. However, there is no analysis regarding how this harassment and loss of reproduction could affect the population as a whole, beyond an assertion that these impacts “would not be expected to adversely affect the stock through effects on annual rates of recruitment or survival.”

The rates of take for populations of Dall’s porpoises (131 percent of population abundance) and the populations of harbor porpoises on the Northern OR/WA Coast (244 percent of population abundance)
and in Washington Inland Waters (265 percent of population abundance) are also exceptionally high.

These porpoises are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of anthropogenic sound. This level of take could also lead to reproductive loss.
The leatherback turtle is classified as endangered under the ESA and has Critical Habitat designated within the Study Area. The western Pacific leatherback sea turtle populations are particularly at risk, and
the SEIS states that (the effort to analyze population structure and distribution by distinct population segment…) is critical to focus efforts to protect the species, because the status of individual stocks varies
widely across the world. Western Pacific leatherbacks have declined more than 80 percent and eastern Pacific leatherbacks have declined by more than 97 percent since the 1980s. Because the threats to these subpopulations have not ceased, the International Union for Conservation of Nature has predicted a decline of 96 percent for the western Pacific subpopulation.”


4 Responses

  1. Thanks for reporting on this, Al. I appreciate your continual surveillance of the discouraging news as well as the glimmers of positive developments. It is, of course, so disturbing that the Navy is bent on invading coastal waters–as if national waters aren’t a big enough stage for their destructive activities.

  2. Al, I wrote a lengthy letter in response to the DSEIS. Of course, never heard anything back. One note of interest, 59 of the 67 activities proposed take place and/or impact Jefferson County shorelines and waters. We are ground zero for these activities.

  3. So infuriating!

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