Military firearms training to resume in critical whale habitat off Vancouver Island

Military firearms training to resume in critical whale habitat off Vancouver Island

Maritime Forces Pacific plans to resume military firearms training in the Salish Sea after a study showed it will have limited acoustic impacts on marine mammals including endangered Southern Resident killer whales.

It comes as the Southern Residents spend more time in local waters while Bigg’s killer whales and humpbacks are having a record year.

“We have confidence based on the information that’s in [the study] to move forward with full operations in Whiskey Hotel,” said Tracy Cornforth, Maritime Forces Pacific Formation Environment Officer.

Whiskey Hotel is an area roughly one kilometre offshore between Sooke and Port Renfrew where the Royal Canadian Navy, Royal Canadian Air Force and U.S. Coast Guard train with surface-level firearms. Operations were paused in 2019 to study the impacts of firearm noise on marine mammals, particularly Southern Residents.

“We’re highly aware Southern Resident killer whales are not only critically endangered but highly vulnerable to ocean noise,” said Cornforth.

The study, led by a marine biologist and senior environmental scientist, has now been released and found the training would have limited behavioural and communication impacts on the mammals, as long as they aren’t spotted within specific safety zones.

“We have trained lookouts and we provide them special training so they can spot cues for marine mammal activities,” said Capt. Stephane Ouellet, assistant chief of staff for Maritime Forces Pacific.

“If they see a marine mammal within the firing template then check check check is going to be called and we cease operation and we reevaluate.”

Ouellet says the navy also receives reports from the Canadian Coast Guard’s Marine Mammal Desk and local whale groups say those sightings, especially for Southern Residents, are pretty accurate.

“When you combine the efforts of whale watchers, with the shore-based observers, with the researchers that are out there, all of that information is getting fed to the whale desk so it’s not perfect but between that and the hydrophone networks in B.C. there’s a lot of ways to find out where whales are located,” said Erin Gless, executive director of the Pacific Whale Watch Association.

The navy says military firearms training in Whiskey Hotel will take place at least once a week year round but operations will be shut down temporarily the moment a marine mammal is spotted in the hazard zone. They will also continue to study any potential impacts once training resumes this month.

April LawrenceApril Lawrence

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