Weapons training on Whidbey draws rebuke from whale-watch association

The use of automatic weapons with killer whales nearby could lead to a tragic outcome.

So, believing that the U.S. military was conducting "war games" off the west side of Whidbey Island Tuesday morning, Jan. 21, with members of the Southern residents killer whales in the area, a commercial whale-watch operator sounded the alarm.

Meanwhile, at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, troops were involved in small-arms training on the base, using 9-mm caliber ammunition as part of a monthly routine exercise, according to NAS public affairs officer Mike Welding.

The training area, Welding said, includes a 2,000-foot safety zone, in case of a ricochet, that extends out into the water and that the Coast Guard routinely notifies boaters when the training exercise is in progress.

Back on San Juan Island, Captain Hobbes Buchanan of San Juan Island Whale & Wildlife Tours & Water Taxi Services alerted the U.S. Coast Guard to the potential dangerous mix of weapons and whales moments after his VHF radio lit up at about 10 a.m. Tuesday with a warning from the Coast Guard to mariners to stay clear of the area because the firing of weapons was about to commence.

“Live firing? I couldn’t believe my ears," Buchanan said. "We had Southern Resident orcas out there. I looked at my AIS (automated identification system) and it was lit up like a Christmas tree, military vessels everywhere.”

Howard Garrett of Whidbey Island-based Orca Network said that J-pod and the L-12s were somewhere in the vicinity of the island's west side, most likely south of the naval base, Tuesday morning.

"That area is right where the whales were headed yesterday," Garrett said.

Welding said the training exercise began and 9 a.m. and ended at 3 p.m., as scheduled. He said that people and cameras are stationed around the training area to monitor the safety zone when the base is conducting its small-arms training. There is no report of a killer whale or marine mammal in the area during the exercise, he said.

"If they saw any person, vessel or killer whale, or any marine mammal, we would immediately stop the training," he said.

In a statement released Wednesday by the Pacific Whale Watch Association, Buchanan said that he next called Lynne Barre of the National Marine Fisheries Service, the federal agency tasked with protecting the endangered Southern residents, to alert her to the military exercise.  He said that Barre knew nothing about it.

On Wednesday, Barre said the only information that she had about Tuesday's exercise was what she had received from Buchanan. She noted that the military, as part of "mitigation" measures to protect the endangered orcas, has protocols in place to monitor for killer whales and other marine mammals during its exercises. The protocols adhered to will depend on the type of activity the military is conducting, she said.

Whale Watch Association Executive Director Michael Harris chastised the Navy and NMFS over Tuesday's exercise, calling use of weapons in the vicinity of the Southern resident "inexcusable."

"A generation ago, the military used our orcas as target practice and effectively they got strafed again today," Harris said. "You can’t bring this population back by shooting rounds over them. Sure, it’s a mistake, and after today it probably won’t happen again – we hope."



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