Navy expands sonar testing despite troubling signs
Monday, December 16, 2013
The National Marine Fisheries Service announced Monday that it has decided to grant the Navy permits for its plans that will intensify its sonar use in the Pacific over the next five years, despite the objection of environmentalists who say the military is not doing enough to protect marine mammals from the loud underwater noise.
The military estimates the training and testing program will have a negligible impact on marine populations.
The Navy estimates that its activities could inadvertently kill 186 whales and dolphins off the East Coast and 155 off Hawaii and Southern California, mostly from explosives.
It calculates more than 11,000 serious injuries off the East Coast and 2,000 off Hawaii and Southern California, along with nearly 2 million minor injuries, such as temporary hearing loss, off each coast. It also predicts marine mammals might change their behavior — such as swimming in a different direction — in 27 million instances.
NMFS granted the permits for the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico last month. The Pacific permit was the final one.
Environmentalists believe the harm will be greater. The California Coastal Commission in March rejected the plan but lacks the power to block the Navy.
In its ruling, NMFS said it will review the latest scientific data yearly with the Navy to determine if enough is being done to mitigate the risks.
Reported mass strandings of certain whale species have increased worldwide since the military started using sonar half a century ago. Scientists think the sounds scare animals into shallow waters where they can become disoriented and wash ashore, but technology capable of close monitoring has emerged only in about the last decade.
Aside from strandings, biologists are concerned that marine mammals could suffer prolonged stress from changes in diving, feeding and communication.
Two recent studies off the Southern California coast found certain endangered blue whales and beaked whales stopped feeding and fled from recordings of sounds similar to military sonar.
Beaked whales are highly sensitive to sound and account for the majority of beachings near military exercises.
Navy officials say it's vital to national security that sailors receive sonar training in real-life conditions, and they use simulators where possible.
Environmentalists want the Navy to create safety zones that would guarantee no high-intensity sonar activity near marine sanctuaries and areas with a high concentration of blue, fin and gray whales seasonally.