Whale Watch Capt Upset by NAS Whidbey Live Ammunition Training
San Juan Islander Editor Sharon Kivisto
January 22, 2014
The U.S. Navy Whidbey Island conducted the fifth small arms training at its training range Tuesday, January 21. Live ammunition was used but was not fired into the water.
Public Affairs Officer Mike Welding said a 2,000 foot safety zone extends into the water in the event of a ricochet. Observers and cameras are stationed at the zone to ensure no people, vessels or marine life are in the area. No jets were participating in the small arms exercise. A separate flight operation training also took placeTuesday.
Pacific Whale Watch Association Captain Hobbes Buchanan contacted the U.S. Coast Guard Tuesday morning after hearing about the firing of ammunition on his marine radio.
“It was the United States Coast Guard, alerting people that live firing was about to commence off the west shore of Whidbey Island,” said Capt. Buchanan, owner/operator of San Juan Island Whale & Wildlife Tours. “Live firing? I couldn’t believe my ears. We had Southern Resident orcas out there!”
Capt. Buchanan contacted the Coast Guard on his radio and told them the Navy was firing 50-caliber rounds into the water and federally protected orcas were in the area. He demanded the Navy stand down. Buchanan believes his action stopped the training exercise.
Welding said the the routine training was scheduled from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. and followed that schedule ending promptly at 3 p.m. The Coast Guard is told in advance of the exercises.
Buchanan wrote in a press release: “The sound even up here in the San Juans was deafening,” said Capt. Buchanan. “I looked at my AIS (Automated Identification System) and it was lit up like a Christmas tree, military vessels everywhere.”
He also called Branch Chief in the Protected Resources Division at NOAA Fisheries Lynne Barre who according to Capt. Buchanan had no idea what was going on. NOAA is in charge of the program to protect the three local pods of killer whales.
“Someone didn’t get the memo,” said Executive Director of the Pacific Whale Watch Association Michael Harris. “It’s absolutely inexcusable. A generation ago, the military used our orcas as target practice and effectively they got strafed again today. You can’t bring this population back by shooting rounds over them. Sure, it”s a mistake, and after today it probably won’t happen again – we hope.
“Orca recovery is a day-by-day thing, and today was a setback. But things like this happen when we’re distracted by endless discussions about ineffectual recovery measures like this no-go zone off the west side of San Juan Island, which has done nothing but divide the community and waste precious time, and take our eyes off addressing the things that really are killing the whales – the lack of salmon and pollution – and the very real threat of oil spills in the Sound and Straits. And yes, even the threat of military exercises conducted unwittingly in the presence of orcas.
“These whales are highly intelligent, and deeply sentient and sensitive creatures. They have extraordinary memories, and we know from our experience here during the orca capture era that Southern Residents haven’t returned to some of the places where they were harassed and captured.” said Harris. “Maybe they’ll avoid this area in future. We just don’t know. But what we do know is that we have far too many eyes and ears out there for these guys to not know where the whales are. We have lots of boats on the water year-round, plenty of people watching from shore. All the Coast Guard and the feds have to do is pick up a phone.”
NOTE: San Juan Islander Editor Sharon Kivisto has left a message with the NAS Whidbey public affairs officer and hopes to obtain more information soon.