Credits: FILE PHOTO
A US government agency has launched an investigation into whether Canadian war games were responsible for the death of a killer whale that washed up in Washington state in February.
Brian Gorman, of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), said his agency is trying to determine how the bruised and bleeding animal died.
Killer whales are listed as endangered, and this particular animal belonged to a group of 90 that is protected by law.
"We take really seriously any kind of injury, or certainly death, in the population, as there are so few animals," Gorman told QMI Agency. "They don't interbreed to any great degree...so if you lose one or two animals, it's a serious threat to the overall health of the population."
This orca, known as L112, landed on the shores of Puget Sound on February 11, just days after a Canadian naval frigate conducted training exercises in the waters south of Victoria, BC.
"HMCS Ottawa used its sonar system in critical habitat of the endangered southern resident killer whales," the Center for Whale Research said.
The calls of two known pods were heard 18 hours later in Haro Strait, which separates Vancouver Island from Washington, and another 18 hours later some were identified at Discovery Bay - a location where southern residents have never been sighted in 22 years of records, the CWR said in a letter to Defence Minister Peter MacKay and US Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus.
"The unprecedented appearance of these whales in these waters...suggests that southern residents were present in the area - and may have been significantly affected by the exercise," the letter says, and goes on to call on both countries' navies to stop using sonar in the area.
"It is simply unacceptable for Canadian naval operations to compromise the protections provided by the Endangered Species Act and Marine Mammal Protection Act and by the US navy's own procedures," says the letter signed by dozens of marine conservation and research organizations.
The CWR's Ken Balcomb, who examined the whale, sent a request to the NOAA to investigate, but Gorman said it's too soon to speculate on what caused the L112's death. The NOAA is analyzing tissue samples from the animal for signs of illness or trauma, as well as for PCBs and other toxins.
He said many of the tests take a while, and many of them are inconclusive, so the NOAA won't take any further steps until it has more information.
New, tighter regulations that came into effect this year restrict whale watching boats and other vessels to a 200-metre distance from killer whales, but they don't say anything about military activity.
"There are, however, arrangements we have with our navy about making sure that when they are conducting activities that could cause a problem with marine mammals that they post a lookout and not conduct these activities when marine mammals are present within a certain distance," Gorman said.
Calls to MacKay's office and Royal Canadian Navy headquarters were not immediately returned.