NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco has announced a series of sweeping new initiatives designed to push the Navy forward in its efforts to understand and mitigate the impacts of mid-frequency active sonar on marine mammals. In response to a request from the Council for Environmental Quality (CEQ), which asked NOAA to conduct a comprehensive review of this controversial issue, Lubchenco outlined several important new initiatives which mark a more active role for NOAA in moving both the science and policy efforts forward. Previously, NOAA had worked closely with the Navy on its Environmental Impact Statements, but had largely rubber-stamped the resultant Navy mitigation plans, which consistently rejected any alternatives that set biologically important portions of US coastal zones off-limits to sonar training.
The new NOAA initiatives include four key elements, three of which dovetail closely with long-time concerns and requests from environmental organizations for NOAA to more actively protect areas of biological significance from both Navy and oil and gas noise, and three of which will help fill key data gaps identified by research scientists over the past decade.
- First, NOAA will work with other civilian agencies (e.g., MMS) to reinitiate comprehensive aerial cetacean and sea turtle surveys, in order to establish more fine-scale population estimates, especially in Navy training ranges. Currently, many Navy EISs rely on coarse, regional population estimates, leading to unrealistic estimations of population density being spread evenly across large areas.
- Second, NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service will host a workshop aimed at developing a plan to create a comprehensive “ocean noise budget.” This is a long-time desire of both researchers and environmentalists, and would identify areas in the ocean where human noise is relatively sparse, as well as areas in which new human activity would not add substantially to already high noise levels.
- Third, another NMFS workshop will be organized to identify marine mammal “hot spots” of particular biological significance. All three of these initiatives tie together nicely to bring acoustics into the Obama administration’s stated aim of moving toward more coherent Marine Spatial Planning, a sort of ocean zoning approach that would help guide human activities toward areas where they will have less impact on animals. In a clear indication that NOAA may take a more proactive role in pushing the Navy to leave some areas out of its training zones, the letter stresses that “Protecting important marine mammal habitat is generally recognized to be the most effective mitigation measure currently available.”
- Finally, NOAA has already begun taking an active role in ongoing meetings between the Navy and the National Resources Defense Council; these meetings were part of a legal settlement and are designed to resolve outstanding differences about Navy active sonar operational and mitigation measures. Lubchenco notes that “NOAA’s participation will enhance these discussions and help resolve differing views….I also expect the Navy to be open to new ideas and approaches to mitigation that are supported by the best available science.”
Indeed, including “spatio-temporal restrictions” (areas or times when activity is prohibited) in active sonar permitting has been a major sticking point between the Navy and NRDC and other environmentalists, and is something the Navy has consistently and explicitly rejected in the first round of sonar EISs, which have been finalized over the past year for most of the key Navy ranges (California, Hawaii, East Coast and just this week, the Gulf of Mexico), none of which included any limits on where and when the Navy could do sonar training. “The Navy’s Southern California range is over 120,000 nautical miles in size — about the size of California itself,” NRDC’s Michael Jasny points out. “The Bush administration did not put a square mile of this vast area off limits to sonar.”
All in all, this is a remarkable and very productive first step for this administration as it enters the long-contentious waters of active sonar regulation, ocean noise in general. You can download Lubchenco’s detailed letter at the NOAA website.