Bombing range or sanctuary? One in the same for endangered orcas | Guest Column

Ken Balcomb - Contributed photo
Ken Balcomb
— image credit: Contributed photo

By Ken Balcomb

I wish to thank Scott Rasmussen for his article (“Digging deep for clues”, The Journal, March 14, pg. 1) on the necropsy of the three year old baby orca designated L112 that I named "Victoria", not "Sooke" when I first saw her.

She was one of the most darling and affectionate little whales in this endangered population, and she will be sorely missed by humans and by the whale population.

The final results of analysis of her tissues and fluids found in her cranium may take some time, but it is important to note that all of the expert observations of her bloody and bruised carcass, and her head, concluded that there is strong evidence of near instantaneous lethal destruction of tissues, mostly on one side, consistent with blast trauma, as already reported.

Her death was undoubtedly caused by humans, and we have to look for the source of the blast.

I have asked the law enforcement division of the National Marine Fisheries Service to investigate so that there will be a clear set of rules concerning withholding, filtering, or losing evidence in this case.The southern resident killer whale population was designated "endangered" under the federal Endangered Species Act, and its protective management is under NOAA, NMFS.

Any federal agency that conducts activities that may impact this population is required to undergo a Section 7 consultation with NMFS, resulting in a biological opinion, following which may be issued a Letter of Authorization for non-lethal "takes". No killing is allowable. The U. S. Navy entered into consultations with NMFS concerning possible takes of marine mammals in the Northwest Training Range Complex that extends in patches along the Pacific coast from about Neah Bay to California, out to 250 nautical miles offshore.

The proposed (and authorized) training activities involve, among other things, dropping 110 bombs (ten of which are MK 82, 500-pound equivalent of TNT explosive) with a 100-percent kill efficiency for any living thing within 37.8 meters in air. Underwater the kill distance is much greater, by a factor of ten or so, at least. Hearing loss and recuperable lung damage will occur at an even greater distance.

The Navy request was for 96 bomb drops last year (eight live MK 82's), and that was said to be the approximate annual number for the previous decade, or so. I apologize to the whales for finding that out only last week.

NMFS has prepared a BIOP which says it is unlikely these activities have any significant deleterious effect on marine mammals, and has issued an LOA for incidental takes resulting from these activities, provided the Navy report them for correlation with the marine mammal stranding record, with unusual mortality events (UME's) in particular.

You can search for these reports along with other stuff I've mentioned on NMFS website or by Google, but there is only one Navy annual report from last July, and its tabular information is—classified. Even if it were unclassifed, a tabular report would be useless for temporally correlating with any strandings, much less UME's, in any meaningful way.

UME's are designated by NMFS and evaluated by a panel of experts selected by the Secretary of Commerce and Secretary of Interior, on a rotating basis. Sorry, I do not yet know what security clearance panel members have, or whether they can request more than tabular data, but I doubt they had such information for review in the nine days between the Navy's July 1, 2011 report, and issuance of a 2011/12 LOA on July, 10 2011.

I am going to request of NMFS that little "Victoria,” aka L112, among others, be designated an UME; and, if her mom and brother, and aunts and cousins do not return to the San Juans this summer, and I do not find them anywhere, I'll request they be designated UME's, too.

This is really a tragic bureaucratic jungle situation for the whales and other marine life in the Olympic Coast National Marine "Sanctuary", and I fear it is even more tragic for our wonderful notion of honest and transparent governance.

Yeah, this is a complicated issue; but, at this rate, the easiest and most forthright way out is to rename the sanctuary: Olympic Coast National Marine Bombing Range (OCNMBR), and to say "bye bye" to the whales.

Citizens have until April 27 to provide public comment on the expansion of, and activities within, the NWTRC; and, I suppose it would be okay to suggest changing the name if that is our collective wish.

It is absurd to call it a sanctuary.

— Ken Balcomb, the director of San Juan Island-based Center for Whale Research, compiles an annual census of the Southern Resident orcas, Orca Survey, which is used by National Marine Fisheries Service as the population’s official tally.


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