U.S. Coast Guard accused of shooting gun near whales

Friday, May 25, 2007

CH NEWS

U.S. Coast Guard accused of shooting gun near whales
But Coast Guard says exercise was stopped as soon as whales came near

Judith Lavoie
Times Colonist

Friday, May 25, 2007

Whale watching boat operators say gun on this U.S. Coast Guard vessel was fired into water while orcas were nearby
CREDIT: Brad Armstrong, Prince of Whales Whale Watching
Whale watching boat operators say gun on this U.S. Coast Guard vessel was fired into water while orcas were nearby

Angry whale watching operators are accusing the U.S. Coast Guard of shooting a machine gun into the water near Sooke while resident killer whales were in the immediate vicinity.

The incident on Thursday was witnessed by boats from four Victoria whale watching companies and Dan Kukat, president of the Whale Watch Operators Association Northwest is calling for better protection for the endangered southern resident orcas.

“We are very concerned with anything that affects the survival of these whales,” he said.

However, a Coast Guard petty officer who took part in the shooting exercise at a Canadian naval range off Sheringham Point, said shooting stopped as soon as whale watching boat operators told them orcas were in the area.

“Our policy is, if we see killer whales within a couple of hundred yards, we stop the vessels and let them swim through the area,” said Petty Officer Travis Fraser

The exercise was halted twice because of the whales, he said.

“We waited about an hour while the pod of whales was in the area. We just drifted for a while and, once the whale watching boats left, we made a visual scan to make sure there were no more killer whales in the area and then we recommenced the exercise.”

That is not how Brad Armstrong, a boat captain with Prince of Whales, sees the incident.

Armstrong, who has driven whale watching boats for eight summers, said he was flabbergasted by the U.S. Coast Guard behaviour.

“When they started firing again the whales were right beside our boat and the boat that was firing was about a quarter of a mile away,” he said.

Armstrong said as he headed out with the 19 metre, double decker boat, carrying 58 passengers, there was chatter on the radio from other whale watchers concerned about the behaviour of two U.S. Coast Guard boats.

“They said they were doing high speed doughnuts in the vicinity of the whales and firing machine guns,” he said.

When Armstrong arrived, about 25 members of J Pod were in the area, including the pod’s new baby.

“The whales were really freaked out they were in a tight pod and changing direction with the males around the outside,” he said.

Prince of Whales zoologist Anna Hall, who was also on the boat, said the behaviour was unusual.

“What I want is to take this as a learning experience. It was a very bad situation, but it could have been worse,” she said,

Communication should be improved, with other agencies recognizing whale watchers as professional animal behaviour experts, and, possibly, U.S. Coast Guard protocol around whales should be reviewed, she said.

Some members of J Pod will remember when killer whales were shot in B.C., Hall said.

“In 1973, 60 per cent of killer whales in B.C. were seen to have bullet holes and those were the ones that survived,” she said.

“We have come long way, but yesterday demonstrated we have a long way to go.”

Fraser said a 7.62 mm machine gun was being used in the exercise and the target was a smoke flare.

“It’s something which is routinely done in that area,” he said.

One boat was on safety/lookout duty around the perimeter while the other vessel was firing, he said.

“We had a four mile safety zone around that vessel,” Fraser said.

Also, the whales were at the eastern end of the exercise area “and we were shooting west,” he said.

Lt. Cmdr. Mark MacIntyre, Maritime Forces Pacific spokesman said the U.S. Coast Guard booked the rectangular shaped range some time ago.

The safety zone of four nautical miles is far beyond the range of the weapon and the Coast Guard exceeded usual safety standards by having a lookout boat patroling the perimeter, he said.

“Now we’re trying to reconstruct what happened,” MacIntyre said.

“We expect to see some sort of report or assessment from the U.S. Coast Guard in the next few weeks to make sure the procedures were OK and we followed the right rules and there was no disconnect between their standards and our standards.”

jlavoie@tc.canwest.com

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Boaters claim U.S. Coast Guard shot near orcas

CanWest News Services

Published: Sunday, May 27, 2007
VICTORIA — Angry whale-watching operators are accusing the U.S. Coast Guard of shooting a machine-gun into the water near Sooke while resident killer whales were in the immediate vicinity.

The incident Thursday was witnessed by boats from four Victoria whale-watching companies.

Dan Kukat, president of the Whale Watch Operators Association Northwest, is calling for better protection for the endangered southern orcas.

Boat operators say a gun on the U.S. Coast Guard vessel was fired into water while orcas were nearby.

But an officer who took part in the shooting exercise at a Canadian naval range off Sheringham Point said shooting stopped as soon as operators told them orcas were nearby.

“Our policy is if we see killer whales within a couple of hundred yards, we stop the vessels and let them swim through the area,” said Petty Officer Travis Fraser.

The exercise was halted twice because of the whales, he said.

“We waited about an hour while the pod of whales was in the area. We just drifted for a while and, once the whale-watching boats left, we made a visual scan to make sure there were no more killer whales in the area and then we recommenced the exercise.”

That is not how Brad Armstrong, a boat captain with Prince of Whales, sees the incident.

Armstrong, who has driven whale-watching boats for eight summers, said he was flabbergasted by the U.S. Coast Guard’s behaviour.

“When they started firing again, the whales were right beside our boat and the boat that was firing was about a quarter of a mile away,” he said.

Armstrong said as he headed out with the 19-metre double-decker boat, carrying his 58 passengers, there was chatter on the radio from other whale watchers concerned about the behaviour of two U.S. Coast Guard boats.

“They said they were doing high speed doughnuts in the vicinity of the whales and firing machine-guns.”

When Armstrong arrived, about 25 members of J Pod were in the area, including the pod’s new baby.

“The whales were really freaked out. They were in a tight pod and changing direction, with the males around the outside,” he said.

Fraser said a 7.62mm machine-gun was being used in the routine exercise and the target was a smoke flare.

One boat was on safety/lookout duty around the perimeter while the other vessel was firing, he said, adding that there was a 6.4-kilometre safety zone around the vessel and that the whales were at the eastern end of the exercise area while the vessel was shooting west.

~ by fredfelleman on May 29, 2007.

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