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Tension builds over expanded whale “takes” in new Navy sonar EIS

Effects of Noise on Wildlife, Ocean, Sonar Add comments

The US Navy has released its initial Draft Environmental Impact Statements for the next 5-year round of permits it will seek from the National Marine Fisheries Service for its at-sea training activities, and the numbers of animals expected to be affected have skyrocketed.  This is in part thanks to the new EISs combining areas that were dealt with separately in the first round of permitting, which occurred after the NRDC challenged the lack of permits in court.  The new Hawaii-Southern California EIS not only combines these two previous separate areas, but also accounts for impact to animals in waters between Hawaii and California that were previously not considered.  In addition, the new EISs draw on more recent scientific evidence of lower impact thresholds for some species, including beaked whales, and on more advanced models that predict animal concentrations and movements.

While this expanded focus and better data is a valuable step forward, the numbers of animals expected to be injured or to have their behavior affected has increased so much that NRDC termed it “harm of staggering proportions.”  Clearly, attempts to foster more constructive dialogue between the Navy, NMFS, and NRDC during the EIS process has not led to a shared vision or lowered the heat all that much.  The Navy’s estimate of the number of animals whose behavior could be affected has jumped from 770,000 to 14 million, including 2 million cases of temporary hearing impairment, in addition to 2000 animals experiencing permanent hearing loss.  And, the Navy estimates that explosives training and testing could kill 1000 animals. 

But, Navy officials told CNN, these alarming numbers — a result of mathematical modeling — are worst-case scenarios.  “We believe … with our mitigation efforts and the Navy commitment that those injuries and mortalities will be none,” said John Van Name, U.S. Pacific Fleet senior environmental planner in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The report also indicated monitoring in 2009-2010 off Hawaii and Southern California showed 162,000 marine mammals with no evidence of distress or unusual behavior during Navy activities.  By comparison, the previous round of EISs estimated injury or death to about 100 animals in Hawaii and California during the five years from 2009-13; to date, two or three dolphins are known to have been killed by explosives testing.

Zak Smith of the NRDC responds that “I am not saying they are not well-intentioned. But I am not sure their choices make them the best environmental stewards they could be.”  In a blog post, Smith elaborates:

While the Navy’s understanding of how much harm it’s activities cause marine mammals has increased, it hasn’t taken any corresponding steps to minimize this staggering level of harm.  It’s mitigation protocol remains largely unchanged, with the Navy refusing to set aside areas of high marine mammal density where sonar should not be used.  This means sensitive breeding and foraging habitats and biologically unique areas within the training area can still be used for sonar and underwater explosives training. We know that safeguarding specific areas of sensitive habitat is the best way to lessen harm to whales and dolphins from sonar and other activities — don’t use the technology in the same areas where whale and dolphin numbers are high or during breeding seasons.  Faced with such incredible numbers and levels of harm, the Navy must do more to identify and set aside portions of its training areas (areas often the size of large states, like California) where it will not conduct training and testing.

For more on the EIS process, see the Navy’s information sites for the Hawaii-Southern California EIS and the Atlantic Fleet EIS.  Comments on both are being accepted through July 10.

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