Conservationists call on navy to restrict sonar use in whale habitat

HMCS Ottawa captain cites Canadian Forces' marine mammal mitigation policy to defend activities in Juan de Fuca Strait

The death of a killer whale that washed up along the Washington coast days after a Canadian navy warship used its sonar in February has prompted conservation groups to take action.

Eight organizations have sent a letter to Defence Minister Peter MacKay urging the Royal Canadian Navy to stop using mid-frequency active sonar, explosives and other active acoustic systems in areas frequented by endangered southern resident killer whales. The groups include Greenpeace Canada, the David Suzuki Foundation and the World Wildlife Fund.

The navy drew fire from environmentalists after it was learned that HMCS Ottawa used sonar during a Feb. 6 anti-submarine exercise off the coast of Victoria in the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Biologists say sonar can interrupt whales’ communication and navigation abilities.

Ship captain Cmdr. Scott Van Will said afterward that no whales had been detected within 4,000 yards (3.6 kilometres) during the exercise.

The ship’s company followed a Canadian Forces’ marine mammal mitigation policy, Van Will said. Since 2008, the policy has governed the use of sonar by Canadian military vessels and aircraft.

But whale advocates, in a joint statement issued March 21, maintain that “killer whales were known to be in the area just following, and likely during, the exercise.”

They say the remains of a three-year old female orca washed ashore on the outer Washington coast on Feb. 11, five days after sonar was used.

Conservationists are also seeking the release of information on all naval exercises conducted in February.

The cause of the whale’s death is under investigation, highlighting the “urgent need for information on all activities, military and otherwise, that might have contributed to her death,” the statement reads. “The loss of a young female represents a major reproductive impact to this population.”

emccracken@vicnews.com