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California regulators reject Navy training plans despite federal approvals

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The California Coastal Commission has rejected the Navy’s 5-year plan for training and testing activities that recently received provisional approvals from the National Marine Fisheries Service.  In a unanimous vote, CCC members said the Navy’s environmental studies failed to back up its claim that impacts on marine life would be negligible during the years 2014-2019.

The Navy’s studies and permit requests suggest that its activities off Southern California could cause 9 million behavioral impacts, 2000 injuries, and up to 130 deaths, though the Navy and NMFS expect impacts to be far lower, and whatever effects do actually occur to have negligible biological impact on populations.  The CCC wants to see more solid science to back up the Navy’s claim that the large numbers will not reflect actual impacts.  Contrary to the Navy’s claim that their projected impact numbers are much higher than what will actually occur, Michael Jasny of the National Resources Defense Council told Commissioners, “We think these are underestimates.”  (See previous AEInews coverage of the Navy and NMFS assessments: New NMFS Navy “take” permits: outrageous or reasonable?)

During the previous 5-year planning round, the CCC took a similar stand, and a Federal Court agreed to some additional precautionary requirements that somewhat limited Navy operations; that ruling led first to a Marine Mammal Protection Act exemption issued by President Bush, and finally to a Supreme Court ruling granting the Navy broad discretion to make operational decisions, and limiting court oversight.

Mark Delaplaine, a coastal manager for the CCC, noted the difficulty of assessing actual impacts: “I’m just torn between the fact that we haven’t seen strandings in this area, and these very large numbers (in Navy estimates) that are really a cause for alarm,” he said.  Still, he stressed that “you have to have additional precautions….It doesn’t make sense to train where there are large amounts of sea mammals.”

The CCC asked the Navy to voluntarily adopt a set of additional precautions in California waters, including larger safety zones in which they would shut down sonar and explosive operations when animals are nearby, avoiding several designated marine sanctuaries and areas known to host seasonal concentrations of blue, fin, and gray whales, and remaining at least 1km (a bit over a half mile) offshore.  The NRDC concurs with these requirements, and encourages a couple more, including avoiding sonar and explosive activity at night, when nearby animals are much harder to detect, and using the Navy’s instrumented ranges to help detect animals.

The Navy declined these requests. “We understand that the Navy is obligated to be consistent with the state’s coastal zone requirements, to the maximum extent practicable,” said Navy spokesman Mark Matsunaga. “And we believe we are.”

For more details on the hearing, see these articles from the Orange County Register and AP.  For a deeper look at the Navy and NMFS studies, see the AEInews lay summary of the Atlantic and Pacific 5-year plans.

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