Skip to main content

Navy’s Plan To Protect Marine Mammals Under Scrutiny

Midshipmen from the Naval Academy depart the USS Higgins after a recent train...

Photo by Steve Walsh

Above: Midshipmen from the Naval Academy depart the USS Higgins after a recent training exercise, July 24, 2018.

The Navy is rolling out its latest plan to manage wildlife in its ocean training grounds from Southern California to Hawaii. But after years of legal battles, environmentalists worry the Navy is backsliding in its efforts to protect marine life.

Homeported in San Diego, the Navy destroyer USS Higgins navigates the congested waters of Southern California.

During a recent training mission, the crew deployed a kingfisher — a type of active sonar that trails behind the ship on a long tether. The Navy uses the sonar to hunt for mines, but the sound it makes can seriously harm whales.

Some of the Navy's most intense training happens in the waters between California and Hawaii. Carrier groups train here before they are deployed in the Pacific. The Marines practice amphibious landings along the California coast. The shallow waters off San Clemente Island are popular with the Navy and Marines. But the sounds of training activities can disrupt marine life.

“Many marine mammals — beaked whales, blue whales, humpback whales — they rely on sound,” said Brett Hartl of the Center for Biological Diversity. “If they can’t hear, they’re as good as dead. It’s the way they communicate. It’s the way they find food.”

The Navy created the new detailed protocol over several years in response to lawsuits brought by environmental groups.

Beginning n 2015, the Navy was required to reduce the use of active sonar. Certain habitat is also off limits to the military during part of the year, including a blue whale foraging area off San Diego. The restrictions were part of a settlement in a federal lawsuit brought by the Natural Resources Defense Council and other groups, including the Center for Biological Diversity.

But the Navy’s proposed plan doesn’t include all of those restrictions.

“Instead of in the context of litigation, we’ve looked at everything new — in terms of science, in terms of what is practical for us to implement as far as mitigation,” said Alex Stone, the Navy's project manager for the new plan.

The new plan still takes into account sensitive habitat and lays out when and where the Navy can use sonar and detonate explosives, Stone said.

But environmentalists contend the new plan erases some of the progress the groups fought for over the years.

“The Navy has made progress in the past,” Hartl said. “They have restricted some of their activities in the past. Now they’re sort of backsliding a little bit, and we’re concerned about that because there are reasonable ways of dealing with military training and protecting marine mammals.”

RELATED: Coastal Commission Rejects Navy’s Plan For Marine Life

Environmentalists want the Navy to limit explosions and sonar in more areas where they know marine mammals congregate at certain times of the year. But that would likely mean fewer exercises close to shore. The Navy resists moving exercises farther out to sea.

At the end of their first day of exercises, the USS Higgins was still close enough to shore that a group of visiting midshipmen from the Naval Academy could return to San Diego aboard a small landing craft.

Going farther from shore isn’t practical, Stone said.

“We want to be as efficient as we can with our training. Having our forces steam hundreds of miles even before they can start training doesn’t really work well,” he said.

The Navy’s own studies have shown the impact that active sonar has on marine mammals. Even large blue whales will turn away from ships using active sonar. The noise can disrupt feeding and breeding activity. In some cases, marine mammals can rise too quickly to get away from the sound, causing internal bleeding and in some cases death.

Most of the time Navy ships use passive sonar, essentially listening to the ocean. But active sonar — which bounces high-intensity sound off underwater objects — is more accurate.

The Navy trains spotters to scan the horizon for marine mammals. The spotters are supposed to shut down exercises if they see a whale breaching nearby.

But even trained spotters can’t see what’s under the water. Species like endangered beaked whales off Hawaii aren’t easy to locate, Hartl said.

“I’ve been out on the ocean,” he said. “I’ve done whale surveys. Beaked whales are only 10 to 15 feet long, and in a big ocean, it’s easy to miss them.”

The Navy’s plan for the waters between Southern California and Hawaii comes up for renewal every five years. The current plan expires Dec. 25.

The Navy doesn’t need state approval for its plan to train off Southern California. But the plan does need the approval of the National Marine Fisheries Service.

In June, the California Coastal Commission unanimously rejected the Navy’s plan. The Navy continues to work with the Coastal Commission to revise the plan, said Mark Delaplaine, manager of the Coastal Commission’s Energy, Ocean Resources and Federal Consistency Division.

The Coastal Commission has been a party to lawsuits over the last two plans. The current Navy proposal is an improvement over the plan adopted five years ago, Delaplaine said, though it doesn’t include some of the stronger language from the settlement.

Environmental groups want the Navy to stick to the agreements worked out after years of litigation on the current plan.

This story is part of our American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration on in-depth military coverage with funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and The Patriots Connection.

Want more KPBS news?
Find us on Twitter and Facebook, or sign up for our newsletters.

To view PDF documents, Download Acrobat Reader.