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Ocean Issues

For news and science on ocean topics since 2008, visit and either choose a Category (list on right side of page), or do a search for a word or topic of interest.
For example, here are a couple of pages that gather posts based on category:
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Focusing on the effects of human noise on ocean life.

This is the most recent collection of Ocean Issues Archives, dated November 2008 and later. See bottom of page for older archive links.

See also AEI's Special Reports on Ocean Issues, including Active Sonars and International

Navy, NRDC et al Settle Mid-Frequency Sonar Lawsuit - Just before the New Year, a settlement was announced in a long-running lawsuit that challenged the Navy's overall management of its mid-frequency active sonar program. The suit, filed in 2005 after it became apparent that the Navy's mid-frequency sonars were responsible for several strandings of deep-diving whales, called on the Navy to conduct full Environmental Impact Statements of its sonar activities, and to implement safety measures to protect whales when sonar was in use. Since then, several other suits have addressed specific training exercises, while this over-arching challenge remained unheard. The settlement appears to satisfy both sides, as it formalizes the Navy's current commitment to completing EIS's and to funding ongoing and new research into the effects of sonar on marine life. "While (the settlement) does not resolve disagreements with the Navy over operational safeguards required to reduce sonar's risk to whales and other marine life," said NRDC's Joel Reynolds, "it sets in place a process for negotiation between the Navy and this environmental coalition that we hope will reduce the need for future litigation." In turn, Frank R. Jimenez, general counsel of the Navy, said, "The Navy is pleased that after more than three years of extensive litigation, this matter has been brought to an end on favorable terms. The Navy welcomes an approach that relies more upon scientific research than litigation." Time will tell whether the planned sharing of more sonar information and 120-day negotiation periods that the agreement provides will help the two sides come together on the key questions of when sonar should be powered down or shut off in the presence of whales. Sources: ENS, 1/5/09 [READ ARTICLE] NRDC Press Release, 12/28/08 [READ PRESS RELEASE] Navy Press Release, 12/27/08 [READ PRESS RELEASE] LA Times, 12/28/08 [READ ARTICLE] Legal Times, 12/29/08 [READ ARTICLE]
[See AEI Special Reports: Active Sonars and Sonar FactCheck]

Deepwater Wind Farms Touted in US, Europe; Out of Sight, Out of Hearing - The next generation of offshore wind development could leap beyond the horizon, side-stepping many concerns about visual and acoustic impacts in shoreline areas. The new turbine designs are placed on floating platforms, reducing the likelihood of low-frequency sound being introduced into the ocean, and allowing large wind farms to move far from the shallow shelves off the coast. A key additional benefit is that about 78 percent of the nation's electricity is consumed by people on the East and West coasts and along the Great Lakes, all places with enormous wind potential. "With all due respect to North Dakota and South Dakota, which have also been labeled the Saudi Arabia of wind, people live along our coastlines," said Raymond Dackerman, general manager of Blue H USA. "It's relatively easier to cable back in from offshore locations into demand centers as opposed to creating projects in locations that are far from population centers." Source: AP, 12/20/08 [READ ARTICLE] [SEE VIDEO OF BLUE H FLOATING PLATFORM]

Navy Wins Supreme Court Sonar Case - This week, the Supreme Court ruled in the Winter v. NRDC case, finding that that the District Court "failed properly to defer to senior Navy officers' specific, predictive judgments" about how the Court-imposed additional safety measures would impact the Navy's ability to effectively train its personnel. The case addressed only two specific additional safety requirements that the Navy had appealed (it chose not to appeal 4 others): a much larger (over a mile) safety zone requiring shut-down of sonar whenever whales were present, and reduced power when surface ducts were present. Three opinions were written, expressing the range of responses among the nine Justices: seven justices agreed that the District Court did not properly balance the interests of the Navy and the environment, with one of them (Breyer) dissenting in the decision to toss the restrictions, preferring the Appeals Court approach of allowing the Navy to defer from the shut-down requirements if whales came into the safety zone during "critical points" in the training sessions, and to reduce power in surface duct conditions only if whales were nearby. (It is worth noting here that the Navy has completed 13 of the 14 planned exercises that this court order applies to, with no apparent effect on readiness; it is unclear whether the Appeals Court adjustment to the two key measures made a crucial difference. In any case, the majority ruled on the more stringent application of these measures as decreed by the District Court, while only Breyer attempted to hew to the middle ground that the Appeals Court had applied.) Two justices felt the lower courts had indeed considered the Navy's concerns and had found the proper balance with its injunction, and further, felt that the Navy had erred in not completing an EIS before beginning the exercises. The Court did not address the larger question of the Executive Branch's authority to issue exemptions from NEPA requirements (skirting questions about the role played in this case by the CEQ), nor did it rule that lower courts cannot impose remedies; it ruled rather narrowly that the lower courts had not balanced the risk of environmental harm and the risk to national security correctly, and as suggested by the above quote, called for military expertise is to be given great deference. The Navy noted that since its own new safety measures were instituted in January 2007, "no marine mammal strandings have been linked to the United States Navy use of sonar anywhere in the world." Sources: NY Times, 11/12/08 [READ ARTICLE] LA Times, 11/13/08 [READ ARTICLE] Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 11/13/08 [READ ARTICLE] Navy News, 11/14/08 [READ ARTICLE] Nature, 11/12/08 [READ ARTICLE] Christian Science Monitor, 11/12/08 [READ ARTICLE] SCOTUSBlog, 11/12/08 [READ ARTICLE] SCOTUS Opinions: Majority, Partial Dissent, Dissent, 11/12/08 [DOWNLOAD OPINION(pdf)]

AEI News in Context: Supreme Court Sonar Ruling - What does it mean? How will this ruling affect the ongoing debate as the Navy rolls out its regional EISs to govern sonar training in offshore ranges around the US coastlines and Pacific ocean? It's interesting to note that the Navy did not appeal two aspects of the lower courts' safety measures: establishing a 12-mile coastal buffer and avoiding a key biologically rich area in the offshore California range that this case concerned. A key issue in the EIS process is shaping up to be the Navy's reluctance to set any areas off limits for sonar training; some observers speculate that the Navy's hard line on this in draft EIS's is designed to give them room to "give" a bit here in final negotiations with regulators and environmental advocates. It is also worth noting that the Navy did not appeal additional safety measures that were imposed by a Hawaiian District Court at nearly the same time as this California court made its decision; it appears that the California approach, which imposed shut-downs at larger distances (rather than simply reducing power gradually as whales came closer), and ordered mandatory power-downs in surface duct conditions whether whales were present or not, was too absolute for the Navy to accept, while the Hawaiian approach, which called for gradual shifts of operational procedures only when whales were observed, was deemed less disruptive to Naval training needs. Of course, the underlying question is whether nearby whales will be seen; the more stringent Californian measures were aimed to protect deep-diving beaked whales, which are rarely seen at the surface. A key point in the Supreme Court decision, and indeed, the Navy argument, was that the mere "possibility" of harm to whales (especially ones that are difficult to find and are rarely present), does not justify disruption of Naval training, despite the fact that in some cases, deaths have occurred. (The Navy counts six such incidents involving a total of a few dozen whales; environmentalists suspect sonar as a factor in up to twenty incidents since 1996, and suggest that beachings represent a small proportion of likely mortality). Indeed, Chief Justice Roberts, writing for the majority, stated that even if some harm to whales was more clearly known to be occurring, that the Navy's need for training would still outweigh this harm. There may be an emerging consensus that is close to the interim rules imposed by the Appeals Court in this case: setting more stringent safety measures, while giving Naval commanders leeway to continue sonar transmissions if the situation warrants. This approach seems to have allowed the Navy to successfully complete the first 13 of the 14 planned training missions off California, and, it is at the root of a long-term agreement between NRDC and the Navy that is currently governing deployment of the low-frequency active sonar system in the Western Pacific.

As Joel Reynolds of NRDC said after the Supreme Court ruling, “We’ve seen a definite change in the level of attention paid to environmental impacts on the part of the Navy. They are now in the process of completing environmental impact statements for planned sonar activities, not just off southern California, but off the southeast coast, Hawaii, and off the Washington coast. We’ve seen significant progress.” In the case at hand, it may be that the California courts simply went a bit too far in pushing the Navy; this is, in essence, the meat of the argument made by 7 of the 9 Supreme Court justices, whose opinions question several specific aspects of the lower court's consideration of balancing the costs to training and the environment. We might take heart at the place where the Navy drew the line in its appeal, though the early EIS drafts suggest some of these debates will continue for another round (specifically, the Navy continues to resist putting any areas off limits, and to call for relatively small safety zones). It is clear that the Navy is, indeed, working on several fronts to learn more about the specific ways that sonar affects marine life, and that there are those in the Navy who appreciate the ambiguities in the current science and are open to constructive dialogue. And while the rhetoric on both sides can get rather absolute, it is likewise clear that environmental advocates are genuinely seeking a balance that allows Navy training to proceed, while minimizing dangers to marine life. Though the push and pull has often been painful for both environmentalists and the Navy, there is little doubt that a more healthy balance is now within reach.

  • To learn more about current deployment of both mid- and low-frequency active sonar, and to review the history of this issue over the past five years, see the AEI Special Report: Active Sonars.
  • To dig deeper into the specifics of the Navy/NRDC talking points on sonar (including how many whales have died, behavioral changes, the Navy's much-touted "29 Safety Measures" and the impact of additional safety measures on training readiness), see the AEI Fact Check: Navy/NRDC Sonar Debate.
  • And, for recent AEI coverage of Navy sonar news (including details on the Supreme Court case) and research related to active sonars, see our blog/feed AEI Sonar Entries.

Navy Releases Final EISs for Sonar Training in Southern California, Entire East Coast - As planned, the Navy has released its final Environmental Impact Statements covering sonar training in coastal ranges and Operating Areas along the eastern seaboard and southern California. The documents consider alternatives including selecting specific areas for sonar training, both permanent and seasonally-shifting, to avoid concentrations of marine life, or designating specific areas of concern to always avoid. However, the "operationally" Preferred Alternative is to continue with the status quo of using sonar anywhere within the operational areas that the Navy deems useful for training purposes.

AFAST Operation Areas: Current status quo sonar training zones
Image from AFAST EIS Executive Summary

In the case of the Atlantic Fleet Active Sonar Training (AFAST) document, the analysis of how many marine mammals would be affected by sonar suggests that there is generally not a dramatic difference between the alternatives, in terms of how many animals would be close enough to suffer temporary hearing loss (the Navy predicts no mortalities under any scenario). A more significant, but still not especially dramatic, decrease in behavioral disruption is predicted under the alternatives that train in specific areas. Sources: The Virginian-Pilot, 10/12/08 [READ ARTICLE] AFAST EIS [DOWNLOAD PAGE] [READ EXECUTIVE SUMMARY]

Navy Training Range Set to Expand In Olympic Marine Sanctuary - The Navy has proposed an expansion of the Quinault Underwater Training Range from 48 square miles to 1,854 square miles, with beach landings planned at either Pacific Beach or Kalaloch Beach, one of the more accessible beaches in Olympic National Park. The public comment period ended in late October; all three alternatives expand the range, with different beaches proposed for the landing exercises. The Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary Advisory Council, NRDC, and Friends of the Earth have all lodged comments urging the Navy to reconsider some elements of the expansion, which the Navy says will give them needed space to test new manned and unmanned vessels, some of which run for up to 72 hours on their own. More room is needed to maneuver, the Navy says, and the watercraft need to be tested in a diversity of sea conditions, water depths and bottom types. Activities in the surf zone would be conducted about 30 days per year, while offshore activities would increase from 14 to 16 days per year (the smaller existing Quinault Range has existed within the Sanctuary since 1981). "The advisory council believes that the needs of the Navy and the interests of the public could have been better served if there had been an alternative that included a much smaller ... operating area," the council said in a letter. The council also calls for locating a proposed beach-landing site outside the sanctuary (one alternative includes a site at Ocean City, just south of the sanctuary, which would likely necessitate ships moving through more of the sanctuary to reach this location). Fred Felleman, of Friends of the Earth, said he understands the need for Navy training but not to the extent that the survival of endangered orcas would be put at risk. Nothing in the Navy's documents suggest the Navy will forego training in the spring, when the Puget Sound whales are likely to be present in coastal areas, he said. Two other nearby ranges, deeper in Puget Sound and inland waterways, are also slated for much more modest expansion. In early 2009, the Navy will also release its Draft EIS governing sonar training in the Northwest Training Range Complex, which includes these three ranges, plus several others off the coasts of Washington, Oregon and northern California. Sources: Scripps News. 9/30/08 [READ ARTICLE] Kitsap Sun.11/9/08 [READ ARTICLE] Olympic Sanctuary Website [VISIT WEBSITE] Olympic Sanctuary Website [VISIT WEBSITE] Naval Undersea Warfare Center Keyport Website [VISIT WEBSITE] Northwest Training Range Complex EIS Website [VISIT WEBSITE]


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