Despite efforts by WDC and other concerned groups, on Thursday the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), the U.S. agency responsible for the stewardship of marine mammal populations in U.S. waters, authorized the US Navy’s Northwest Training and Testing (NWTT) proposal, which includes sonar testing and exercises within the range of the critically endangered Southern Resident orca population. The range of the Navy’s NWTT grounds includes Puget Sound waters – designated as critical habitat for the Southern Residents – as well as the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary, on the outer coast of Washington. Southern Resident orcas travel the outer coasts of Washington, Oregon, and California in late fall through spring, an area currently proposed for expanded critical habitat.
Both the Navy and NMFS acknowledge the potential for disturbance of marine mammals by the planned activities, but state that “most will be low-level disturbances” or “short-term behavior changes.” WDC’s Rekos Fellow for Orca Conservation, Colleen Weiler, has this response to the ruling: “For the endangered Southern Resident orcas, any activity that disturbs them, or disrupts an important activity such as foraging, can hardly be considered low-level. We are disappointed by this ruling and will continue to work towards protecting the Southern Residents, as well as the two other orca ecotypes (Bigg’s and Offshores), whales, and dolphins who inhabit the affected waters.”