Sonar safety questioned following death of whales

The death of a young female killer whale from B.C.’s endangered southern pod has prompted eight conservation organizations to ask Canada’s military to exclude military training exercises from the critical habitat of the iconic creatures.

The population of the southern pod is estimated at about 80 individuals, which has resulted in its listing under the Species at Risk Act, and environmentalists say the death of the whale represents a “major reproductive impact to this population.”

On Feb. 11, a three-year-old female southern resident killer whale (L112) washed ashore near Long Beach on the outer Washington coast.

Just days before, the Canadian naval frigate HMSC Ottawa was testing mid-frequency active sonar in the waters south of Victoria. The whales were known to be in the area during and just following the exercise.

The cause of the whale’s death is still under investigation, but the environmental alliance said the incident “underscores the need for stronger actions within the critical habitat of southern residents and the broader Salish Sea region, where sound propagation conditions are heightened.”

The David Suzuki Foundation, Georgia Strait Alliance, Greenpeace Canada, Living Oceans Society, Raincoast Conservation Foundation, Sierra Club of B.C., Western Canada Wilderness Committee and World Wildlife Fund are requesting that the Canadian navy disclose information surrounding all military activities conducted in February 2012, including information about the use of sonar, explosives or other acoustic systems.

The group also sent a letter to Defence Minister Peter Mackay, urging the military to recognize the designated critical habitat of orcas by establishing an exclusion zone where training with MFA sonar, other high-intensity active acoustics, and explosives be prohibited.

Southern resident killer whale pods are also listed as endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

Earlier this year, Canadian courts ruled that the government has a responsibility to protect killer whale habitat under SARA instead of the Fisheries Act.

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