The Friends of the San Juans put together this excellent sample letter to send to the Navy by Wednesday, June 12th! Send your letter electronically by clicking here.

Naval Facilities Engineering Command Northwest
Attention: NWTT Supplemental EIS/OEIS Project Manager
3730 N. Charles Porter Ave.
Building 385, Admin, Room 216
Oak Harbor, WA 98278-5000

RE: Draft Northwest Training and Testing Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement/Overseas Environmental Impact Statement

Dear Naval Facilities Engineering Command Northwest,

Thank you for the opportunity to comment on the Draft Northwest Training and Testing (NWTT) Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (Draft EIS). The organizations listed below would like to submit the following inputs, clarifications and additional scientific literature that should be considered in the analysis. We are specifically concerned about impacts on the Southern Resident orcas, which are at serious risk of extinction. We strongly believe this iconic species is currently, and will continue to be, directly affected by the training and testing activities.

  1. Navy impacts on Southern Resident orcas were in fact recognized as an issue by the Orca Task Force in Washington state.

The EIS inaccurately claims that “Navy actions were not the sources for any of the identified threats” in the report by the Southern Resident Orca Task Force (Office of the Washington Governor, 2018) (page 3.4-46).

In fact, concerns about the Navy’s use of sonar equipment impacting the Southern Residents was raised in the very first Orca Task Force meeting (5/1/2018 meeting minutes). Recommendation 25 in the final report was “Coordinate with the Navy in 2019 to discuss reduction of noise and disturbance affecting Southern Resident orcas from military exercises and Navy aircraft.” It further continued: “The governor should meet with the U.S. Navy’s Commanding Officer for the region that includes Washington state to address the acoustic and physical impacts to Southern Resident orcas from Naval exercises in waters and air of Washington state. The governor should request the Navy participate on the Vessels working group in Year Two and identify actions to reduce the Navy’s impacts to Southern Resident orcas” (emphases added) (Office of the Washington Governor, 2018).

In addition, potential impacts from Naval activities are recognized as a threat to Southern Resident orca survival and recovery in both the U.S. and Canada Southern Resident orca recovery plans.

2.                  Given the small size of the endangered Southern Resident orca population today, and the fact that they travel in groups, harm to a single individual orca can easily mean a population-level effect.

Each individual orca in the current population matters if the population is to avoid extinction. There has been a net loss of 12 individual Southern Resident orcas since 2011. The population has continued to decline since the 2015 NWTT EIS. In 2016, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) declared that Southern Resident orcas are one of the marine species most at risk of extinction nationwide. The final EIS will need to be updated with the latest number of Southern Resident orcas alive today, which is currently fewer than the 77 stated in the draft.  

The Draft EIS states that “the use of sonar and other transducers during training activities as described under Alternative 1 will result in the unintentional taking of killer whales incidental to those activities” (page 3.4-190). The EIS Fact Sheet Booklet states that 99.84% of all estimated takes of marine mammals would be Level B harassment, disrupting natural behavior patterns such as feeding, surfacing, nursing, breeding, sheltering or migration to those point where those patterns are abandoned or significantly alter. These—and especially feeding, breeding, and nursing—are all critical activities for the Southern Resident orcas now, given that they have produced only two surviving calves in the last three years, two orcas are visibly emaciated, and nutritional stress is recognized as a primary threat to the population. Up to 69% of all detectable pregnancies between 2008 and 2014 were unsuccessful, and low availability of Chinook salmon appeared to be a significant cause of late pregnancy failure (Wasser et al. 2017); Level B harassment by Navy activities that interferes with both feeding and breeding or displaces orcas from preferred foraging areas is of significant concern and will further contribute to the Southern Resident orcas’ low reproductive success.

Table 3.4-40 in the EIS estimates two behavioral impacts to Southern Resident orcas per year from sonar and other transducers. It is unclear whether that means just two individual orcas will likely be affected; if so, we question whether that is realistic given that pods of orcas travel together. We are particularly concerned about new and increased impacts to Southern Resident orcas from mine explosives, which can cause injury or death, and the use of mid-frequency sonar, which can impact other marine mammals out to 16 km offshore. wildlife within 2,000 square miles – well outside the reasonable area that marine mammal observers are able to survey to record marine mammal sightings and initiate mitigation measures. In fact, military exercises have been documented to impact orcas right here in the Salish Sea.

In a population with strong family ties, the loss of one orca also directly affects the others’ chance of survival. When a female resident orca dies, it increases the mortality risk of her male offspring under age 30 by 3.1 times, and the mortality risk of her male offspring over age 30 by 8.3 times (Foster et al. 2012). In late 2018 and early 2019, for example, it was reported that male Southern Resident orca K25 was observed to be doing poorly after the death of his mother, K13.

3.                  There are documented cases in this region of U.S. and Canadian naval activities, including active sonar training and explosive testing, causing direct harm to the Southern Resident orcas.

In 2003, an active sonar training exercise conducted by the U.S. Navy in the eastern Strait of Juan de Fuca and Haro Strait caused one of the Southern Resident killer whale families (J pod) to stop foraging and exhibit abnormal behaviors and movement, change direction multiple times, and group together in shallow water where they are at increased risk of stranding. In a video recording of the incident, sonar can clearly be heard above the water.

More recent incidents involving testing of sonar and explosives by the Canadian Navy in Southern Resident orca habitat are examples of the potential impact of the activities proposed in this EIS. A juvenile Southern Resident female was stranded in 2012 with evidence of trauma consistent with an explosion or high-pressure impact, a week after the Canadian Navy had been conducting sonar exercises in the region. An exact cause of death was not determined, but experts in underwater noise who continue to review her case believe that the most likely cause of death was an underwater military explosion. In 2017, explosives detonated by the Canadian Navy near a group of Southern Residents (L pod) caused the whales to group together suddenly and flee the area. These examples show that just one incident of training and testing activities impacting Southern Residents can cause significant harm, death, or displacement from preferred habitat.

4.                  Other agencies and operators are taking new, meaningful steps to reduce noise and disturbance affecting Southern Resident orcas. The Navy must also increase its protections, or it will become responsible for a larger share of the cumulative impact and potentially negate some of the benefits of the other actions being taken.

In 2019, Washington state has taken big steps to reduce impacts on Southern Resident orcas from other vessel types, recognizing that noise and disturbance have significant adverse consequences for this endangered population. In May 2019, Governor Inslee signed into law a bill that increases the distance that vessels must stay away from the Southern Residents and enacts a 7-knot speed limit within a half nautical mile of these orcas. The legislature also allocated funding for a new hybrid ferry and funding to convert some ferries to hybrid-electric power. Washington State Ferries is also doing a baseline noise inventory and developing solutions to address noise and frequencies of concern. Meanwhile, in 2019, voluntary ship slowdowns will continue and expand for the third year through the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority-led Enhancing Cetacean Habitat and Observation (ECHO) Program – a Canadian program that directly benefits Southern Resident orcas in the inland waters.

The Navy should increase its own mitigation efforts so that there is still a significant net benefit to the Southern Residents in terms of reduced noise and disturbance when all these other entities are increasing their protective measures.

5.                  The designation for Southern Resident orca critical habitat is likely to change later this year. The Navy should not make final decisions about training and testing in the potential new critical habitat areas off the coasts of Washington, Oregon and California until this designation has been made.

NMFS has committed to proposing a rule with an expanded designation of critical habitat off Washington, Oregon and California by early October 2019 – an area encompassed by the NWTT range. Advancing this EIS now for activities in an area that is on the cusp of being designated as critical habitat is irresponsible. The Navy should wait until NMFS makes its final designation for expanded critical habitat before pursuing activities that would adversely affect the area. Changes in the Navy’s mitigation measures are likely to be necessary so that the proposed action does not “result in destruction or adverse modification of critical habitat.”

6.                  Recent variations in Southern Resident orca presence in the Salish Sea are complex and should not be an excuse for exercising less caution in the inland waters.

The EIS states that “foraging during the spring in Salish Sea by Southern Resident killer whales has declined in recent years as they shift their range and forage for Chinook salmon or other prey species elsewhere in response to reduced prey availability in that historically used inland waters foraging area” (p. 3.4-26). Even spending time elsewhere, Southern Resident orcas are not getting enough food and are showing signs of malnutrition. The inland waters foraging area is still critically important if they are going to survive and thrive. In recognition of this fact, state and federal governments are actively working to restore salmon populations in the inland waters. It is difficult to predict orca presence on a long-term or even annual basis, and the Navy should not assume that the shift outside of the Salish Sea in the spring and summer is a permanent change.

The Southern Resident orcas are still sighted in the Salish Sea frequently. In fact, Olson et al. 2018 noted that K and L pods have been increasing the duration of their stay in the inland waters by staying in the Salish Sea through the fall and into the early winter.  The Navy should consult with orca biologists to gather other recent information, in addition to reviewing recent published literature on Southern Resident orca presence in the Salish Sea.

The EIS implies that changes in the Southern Residents’ presence in the Salish Sea mean that protections there are less important than they used to be. In fact, it should be reason for an extra layer of caution. Reducing noise and disturbance in the heavily-trafficked inland waters could enable the Southern Residents to forage there more effectively and therefore spend more time there as they have historically. Recent information on foraging locations should not be interpreted as a reason to decrease or discontinue mitigation efforts to avoid impacts to Southern Residents in the Salish Sea.

Additionally, the Navy should consider that when the Southern Resident orcas are not in inland waters, they are likely to be in their offshore area, which is subject to additional training and testing activities that do not occur in the Salish Sea. The Navy should consider additional mitigation and monitoring in the orcas’ offshore habitat given the potential increased use of this area and the unique activities—such as active sonar—that take place in this portion of the NWTT range.

7.                  The EIS should include two additional studies related to impacts on Southern Resident orcas: Wieland et al. 2010 and Emmons et al. 2019.

Wieland, M., A. Jones, and S. C. P. Renn. 2010. Changing durations of Southern Resident killer whale 23 (Orcinus orca) discrete calls between two periods spanning 28 years. Mar. Mam. Sci. 26(1):195–201.

This study found that the Southern Residents make a behavioral adjustment as a result of vessel noise, as measured through an increase in mean durations of discrete calls. “Because they are adjusting their vocal behavior, we must consider the very real possibility that engine noise is hindering their ability to communicate, and may well impact their efficiency at using acoustics to forage and navigate, as well” (Wieland et al. 2010). These findings should be incorporated into on masking (page 3.4.103, which talks about other species but not killer whales) and into the odontocete discussion on page 3.4-120.

Emmons, C.K., M.B. Hanson, and M.O. Lammers. 2019. Monitoring the occurrence of Southern Resident killer whales, other marine mammals, and anthropogenic sound in the Pacific Northwest. Prepared for: U.S. Navy, U.S. Pacific Fleet, Pearl Harbor, HI. Prepared by: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Northwest Fisheries Science Center under MIPR N00070-17-MP-4C419. 25 February 2019. 23p.

This report states that there were 148 mid-frequency active sonar events detected between 2011 and 2017, with the peak overlapping with occurrence of the three killer whale communities (including Southern Residents). This is concerning because, as the EIS states, exposure to mid-frequency sonar has been directly linked to separation of a killer whale calf from its group (page 3.4-102); the separation and loss of a single calf would be a serious blow to the small population, given that there are so few calves and the southern residents have had limited reproductive success in recent years. Exposure to mid-frequency sonar has also been directly linked to mass strandings of cetaceans (page 3.4-127). In addition, the EIS states that newer high-duty or continuous active sonars have more potential to mask vocalizations, particularly for mid-frequency cetaceans like killer whales, and “longer-term consequences could include potential decrease in recruitment” (p. 3.4-102). The Southern Resident orcas cannot afford any further decrease in their already very low recruitment rates.

The findings from Emmons et al. 2019 regarding seasonal use of different offshore areas by Southern Resident orcas and other whales should also be used to minimize adverse impacts by shifting sonar and explosives testing and training by season and by location.

8.                  New whale report alert systems should be used for real-time monitoring and early warnings to build on the limited capacity of lookouts.

The Navy should explore the use of newly available apps and technology that provide real-time information on whale presence in the Salish Sea and along the coast. Using this technology could expand the ability of the Navy’s marine mammal observers to be aware of and respond to the presence of Southern Resident orcas. For example, the Whale Report Alert System (WRAS), developed by the British Columbia Cetacean Sightings Network, alerts mariners to the presence of whales so that mitigation measures may be enacted to reduce the risk of disturbance and collision. Orca Network, Whale Scout, and other organizations in Washington also contribute to a Whale Sighting Network with close to real-time reporting in the Salish Sea.

9.                  Additional information is needed on the anticipated timing of the proposed activities.

The EIS should detail the times of year during which the proposed activities will take place. The Southern Resident orcas have exhibited seasonality in their movements, and information from tagging studies, coastal surveys, and passive acoustic monitoring allows some degree of prediction for when and where they may be traveling and foraging. Any overlap in their seasonal movements and the Navy’s testing and training activities will increase impacts on these species. Information about timing should be made public in the EIS and the Navy should seek to adjust the timing of their activities to minimize such overlap.

10.              The intended duration of the EIS is not clear.

This EIS is unclear as to the duration of the planned activities. A change in the 2019 Naval Defense Authorization Act extended the Navy’s authorization for marine mammal take and harassment under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) from five to seven years. It is not stated in this EIS whether the proposed activities were analyzed for impacts over a five-year time period or for the extended seven-year time period.

11.              Increasing the Navy’s testing and training activities at this time is counter to what the endangered Southern Resident orcas need right now to have a chance at recovery.

Without bold and immediate actions, the Southern Residents are likely to go extinct within our lifetimes. Everything we can do now to protect the Southern Resident orcas is critical. In a time when we should be taking action to address and decrease threats facing the population, including reducing noise and disturbance, the Navy’s proposed activities increase the risks from ocean noise, vessel strike and disturbance, potential direct harm and injury to Southern Resident orcas, and displacement from preferred habitat.

The Navy must consider the current crisis facing the endangered Southern Resident orcas and make new adjustments in its testing and training activities. Despite being listed under the Endangered Species Act for nearly 14 years, this unique population is not recovering and is continuing to decline. It is obvious that status quo actions, including the Navy’s training and testing activities, are not serving the Southern Resident orcas. Given their highly endangered status and continuing decline, the Navy should be considering how to reduce impacts and increase protections for Southern Resident orcas.

Thank you for your consideration of our input and concerns as you finalize the EIS.