OCEANS:

NMFS proposal lets Navy harm 30M marine mammals

The Obama administration is proposing to allow the Navy to harm more than 30 million marine mammals while conducting exercises in two training ranges over the next five years.

Under two proposed rules to be published in Thursday's Federal Register, the National Marine Fisheries Service would allow the Navy to kill, injure or disrupt the behavior of whales, dolphins and other marine mammals 9.6 million times in the Hawaii and Southern California training ranges and 21.8 million times in the Atlantic training range over a five-year period beginning in January 2014. That's roughly triple what the Navy was granted in the previous five-year period.

The increase has multiple causes. The growing military focus on the Pacific region creates a greater demand for naval forces, which will be acquiring new vessels and weapons systems in coming years that will need to be tested and trained on. Much of that equipment and training -- aimed at what military leaders see as a growing threat of submarine and mine warfare -- is noisy. Meanwhile, new scientific studies are showing that marine mammals are more sensitive to marine noise than previously thought. The new proposals also cover slightly more ocean territory than previous ones.

The Navy says the numbers are a conservative estimate -- that the modeling used to calculate the number of affected animals is especially sensitive, and that the Navy's calculations include "surge capacity" in case troops need to be quickly trained and deployed.

Moreover, Navy officials say they implement protective measures including placing trained lookouts on board ships to watch for marine mammals and power down operations if they are sighted during testing and training; restricting activities in migratory routes and some sensitive areas, including those of endangered North Atlantic right whales; and listening for mammals using some of the same equipment it uses to listen for submarines.

"We do anything and everything we can to avoid marine mammals," said Rear Adm. Kevin Slates, director of the Navy's energy and environmental readiness division. "There isn't a Navy captain at sea that wants to take his or her vessel through a sensitive area."

But environmental groups say these measures do not go far enough.

"This is really an unprecedented amount of harm that the Navy is proposing," said Zak Smith, an attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council. "The scientific literature is giving us a better understanding of the impact, and it's much worse than we ever thought. But the problem is that there's no corresponding identification or adoption of measures that would significantly lessen the amount of harm."

The Navy's primary reliance on visual lookouts is flawed, Smith said, because mammals rarely surface. Under ideal visual conditions, a lookout would sight a beaked whale only 2 percent of the time, he said.

Green groups are pressing NMFS to require additional mitigation measures, such as excluding ocean regions with especially important marine mammal habitat from naval activities.

"We know that so many of these marine mammals depend on sound and communication to find food, to find mates, for navigation, so when you're flooding their habitat with this really noisy sonar, you can expect all kinds of problems," said Miyoko Sakashita, oceans director at the Center for Biological Diversity.

The problem isn't just the Navy's. Once-silent depths are now a veritable cacophony, filled with noise from commercial vessels and energy exploration as well. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is mapping human-made noises in ocean waters around the globe as a first step toward reining it in (Greenwire, Dec. 11, 2012).

Meanwhile, recent scientific studies indicate that marine mammals have a lower threshold for noise than previously thought. For instance, a 2011 study by researchers at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute found that even at levels below what regulators define as a disturbance, beaked whales stopped foraging in deep waters and took an unusually long time to ascend when exposed to sonar (E&ENews PM, March 16, 2011).

Click here for the proposed rule for the Atlantic Fleet Training and Testing Study Area.

Click here for the proposed rule for the Hawaii-Southern California Training and Testing Study Area.