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Navy Says Right Whales Not at Risk Near New Training Range

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The US Navy has released a Final EIS for its long-planned Undersea Warfare Training Range (USWTR), and has settled on an area off Jacksonville as its preferred location.  This was one of three areas under consideration, and marks a shift from earlier plans to locate the range off North Carolina, which met widespread resistance from state officials and environmental advocates.  The new range will host fairly intensive (average of 4x/month) active sonar training and other Navy training programs.  The USWTR will be about 50 miles offshore,  which the Navy feels is far enough to avoid acoustic impacts on wintering Right whales close to shore.  Environmental groups and the State of Florida continue to question the site’s appropriateness, largely due to concerns about impacts on this vulnerable whale population.  The range will be “instrumented,” meaning that there are permanently deployed acoustic (and many other) monitors on the seabed, allowing more comprehensive monitoring of animals within the range than is normally possible at sea.  However, concerns remain that the Navy’s mitigation plan is designed to prevent only physical injury, and that whales (especially young ones) may be behaviorally disrupted by much lower levels of sound at much greater distances.  The Navy has adopted several measures to minimize risk to Right whales while ships are transiting the near-shore critical habitat, but has rejected options that would minimize activity during the Dec-Mar season when whales are present.  Further mitigation may be imposed by NMFS when it publishes the final “Rule” after assessing the Navy’s EIS; NMFS has worked closely with the Navy as it developed the EIS, but with the advent of the new administration, is reassessing its own sonar-mitigation standards.  Note: AEI will offer further analysis of the Navy’s EIS in the coming weeks (and, sorry for being a bit slow getting this news up!).

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