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Whale death leads to call for ban on navy exercises

Mar 22 2012

Speculation is growing over what caused the death of a young resident killer whale and conservation organizations want the Royal Canadian Navy to stop holding military training exercises in the whales' critical habitat.

The body of the three-year-old female whale, a member of the endangered southern resident killer whales, washed up on a beach near Long Beach, Washington, on Feb. 11, shortly after the Canadian navy was using sonar in Juan de Fuca Strait.

An initial necropsy showed L112, also known as Sooke, died of "significant trauma," but scientists who took part in the necropsy said it was unlikely the whale had been struck by a vessel or attacked by another whale.

A CT scan and virology, contaminant and bacteriological analyses are being conducted, but conclusive results may not be available for several months.

However, Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research in Friday Harbor, Washington, believes that Sooke's death was the result of naval activity, and that the orca may have been blown up.

Some witnesses said sonar pings, which were recorded by a series of hydrophones, were preceded by an explosion.

A statement from navy public affairs said HMCS Ottawa was operating in Juan de Fuca Strait Feb. 6 and the exercise included "a period of sonar use."

However, all rules were followed to make sure no marine mammals were in the area, the statement said. "HMCS Ottawa followed the Marine Mammal Mitigation Policy prior to and during the period when they were using the ship's sonar. There were no reports, nor indications of marine mammals in the area."

But environmental groups - David Suzuki Foundation, Georgia Strait Alliance, Greenpeace, Living Oceans, Raincoast Conservation Foundation, Sierra Club B.C., Western Canada Wilderness Committee and the World Wildlife Fund - want an end to military exercises in the area and a release of all information about activities in the area that might have contributed to Sooke's death.

"This population of killer whales is listed as endangered under Canada's Species at Risk Act and the legal obligation to protect their critical habitat was recently reinforced by the courts," says a statement from the conservation groups.


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