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Canadian military to resume weapons training along section of B.C. coast after 3-year hiatus

A .50-calibre Browning machine gun sits on the upper deck of HMCS Montreal on March 15, 2022. (Cpl. Braden Trudeau/Canadian Armed Forces) A .50-calibre Browning machine gun sits on the upper deck of HMCS Montreal on March 15, 2022. (Cpl. Braden Trudeau/Canadian Armed Forces)
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The Canadian military says it will resume weapons training along a section of the B.C. coast after a three-year pause to study its effects found "negligible" impacts on marine mammals, including the endangered southern resident killer whale.

The study, conducted by engineering firm Golder Associates, found the military's existing procedures are sufficient to mitigate the harmful effects of sea-surface and aerial gunnery in the Strait of Juan de Fuca near the southwestern tip of Vancouver Island.

In 2019, the military called a pause on all surface weapons training in the "Whiskey Hotel" operating area, a roughly 30-kilometre stretch of coastline west of Victoria that is used for weapons training by both the Canadian and United States militaries, as well as the U.S. Coast Guard.

During the hiatus, the Department of National Defence and Public Services and Procurement Canada hired Golder to study the underwater and surface noise impacts of military small arms fire on aquatic mammals.

The study did not examine the potential impacts of gunfire striking marine mammals, nor the potential contamination of the waterway from spent rounds or debris. Nor did it examine the effects of gun noise on other marine life, such as birds and fish.

"Further studies would be required to evaluate those effects," Golder wrote in its final report to the federal government.

"However, the Royal Canadian Navy and the United States Coast Guard follow firing orders that identify specific areas that must be clear of all land, vessels, aircraft and marine mammals," the firm wrote. "These areas are specific to each weapon and are based on weapon hazard patterns that were developed from a worst-case scenario that includes deflection error, environmental factors, ricochets and round fragmentation."

The study paid particular attention to how the southern resident killer whale (SRKW) population could be affected by the noise of .50-calbre machine guns, as well as various small arms fired from naval vessels and Royal Canadian Air Force helicopters.

The Canadian and U.S. militaries conduct most of their weapons training in the area during the summer months when calmer seas provide a more stable firing platform.

"As the [area] is located within SRKW critical habitat and within key foraging areas used by this population during the summer months, potential effects to this population are of particular importance," Golder wrote. "Modelling results for all scenarios indicate that small arms noise will not exceed the underwater disturbance threshold for any marine mammal species."

WEAPONS TRAINING TO RESUME THIS MONTH

The Canadian military says it will resume surface weapons training in the "Whiskey Hotel" area – roughly between Sooke, B.C., and Port Renfrew, B.C. – later this month.

"The study concluded that with the application of existing mitigation procedures, potential residual effects to marine mammals is anticipated to be negligible" when training resumes, National Defence said in a release Monday. "Specific to southern resident killer whales, neither injury nor disturbance is considered likely to occur."

The declining southern resident killer whale population is a chief concern among West Coast conservationists as the number of whales has fallen from its recent peak of 98 animals in 1995 to 80 whales in 2001, according to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The most recent population study in September found that 73 southern resident whales remain following the deaths of three whales between July 2021 and July 2022, according to researchers at the Washington state-based Center for Whale Research.

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada did not provide an immediate response to a request for comment Tuesday. This story will be updated if and when a response is received.

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