The governor of Washington and other state officials have criticized a Navy military testing program that would potentially harm endangered orcas if approved.
The planned military exercises include testing torpedoes, firing projectiles at seven times the speed of sound, piloting mine-detecting undersea drones, deploying underwater sonar and exploding bombs up to 1,000 pounds (450 kilograms) in waters from northern California to Alaska, including the outer coast of Washington state, The Seattle Times reported.
Democratic Washington Gov. Jay Inslee said in a letter earlier this month that the Navy needs a “more robust avoidance and mitigation strategy” for the program to protect marine mammals, particularly orcas, from harm caused by federal officials charged with protecting marine mammals and threatened wildlife.
The program would not allow any southern resident orcas to be killed but would subject several other marine mammals to a wide range of disturbances and harm, including death. That could include seals, humpbacks, gray whales and others, according to Navy estimates.
The program could also interfere with orcas’ hunting, feeding, socializing and breeding. The Navy increased its estimate of the number of times southern resident orcas would be disturbed by the program from two to 51 times a year.
The Navy is aware of potential harm to the whales, and is working to avoid or minimize further effects on the species, said Julianne Stanford, environmental public affairs specialist for the Navy Region Northwest.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has determined the impact from the proposed seven-year testing program to be “negligible” and is drafting a final rule for the program’s implementation, scheduled to begin in November. However, several state officials disagree.
Approving the program would be “gross neglect” of NOAA’s management duties, a joint letter from state agency directors said earlier this month, including the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Department of Natural Resources, the state Office of Recreation and Conservation and others.
Inslee and several agencies want NOAA to take back its assessment and to incorporate new limits on the program intended to reduce potential harm to orcas and other marine mammals.
The NOAA will be considering the comments received during the now concluded public comment period, including from state officials, as it writes the final rule, spokesperson Kate Goggin said.