Lawsuit challenges naval sonar testing

Groups say federal agencies should use updated biological information to permit large-scale training exercises in the Pacific

Orcas in the Pacific. PHOTO COURTESY NOAA.

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY —Conservation groups say federal wildlife officials have failed to use the best available information on locations of marine mammals to protect the animals from the impacts of naval sonar training.

Last week, a coalition of conservation and American Indian groups sued the National Marine Fisheries Service for failing to protect thousands of whales, dolphins, porpoises, seals and sea lions from U.S. Navy warfare training exercises along the coasts of California, Oregon and Washington.

The lawsuit calls on the agency to mitigate anticipated harm to marine mammals and biologically critical areas within the training range that stretches from Northern California to the Canadian border.

“We are asking for common-sense measures to protect the critical wildlife that lives within the training range from exposure to life-threatening effects of sonar. Biologically rich areas like the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary should be protected,” said Zak Smith, staff attorney for Natural Resources Defense Council..

The litigation is not intended to halt the Navy’s exercises, but asks the court to require the Fisheries Service to reassess the permits using the latest science and to order the Navy to stay out of biologically critical areas at least at certain times of the year.

“These training exercises will harm dozens of protected species of marine mammals — Southern resident killer whales, blue whales, humpback whales, dolphins and porpoises — through the use of high-intensity mid-frequency sonar,” said Steve Mashuda, an Earthjustice attorney representing the groups. “The Fisheries Service fell down on the job and failed to require the Navy to take reasonable and effective actions to protect them.”

The Navy uses a vast area of the West Coast for training activities including anti-submarine warfare exercises involving tracking aircraft and sonar; surface-to-air gunnery and missile exercises; air-to-surface bombing exercises; sink exercises; and extensive testing for several new weapons systems.

“Since the beginning of time, the Sinkyone Council’s member tribes have gathered, harvested and fished for traditional cultural marine resources in this area, and they continue to carry out these subsistence ways of life, and their ceremonial activities along this Tribal ancestral coastline,” said Priscilla Hunter, chairwoman and cofounder of the InterTribal Sinkyone Wilderness Council.

“Our traditional cultural lifeways, and our relatives such as the whales and many other species, will be negatively and permanently impacted by the Navy’s activities. Both NMFS and the Navy have failed in their obligations to conduct government-to-government consultation with the Sinkyone Council and its member Tribes regarding project impacts.”

In late 2010, the Fisheries Service gave the Navy a permit for five years of expanded naval activity that will harm, or “take,” marine mammals and other sealife. The permit allows the Navy to conduct increased training exercises that can harm marine mammals and disrupt their migration, nursing, breeding or feeding, primarily as a result of harassment through exposure to the use of sonar.

The Navy’s mid-frequency sonar has been implicated in mass strandings of marine mammals in, among other places, the Bahamas, Greece, the Canary Islands and Spain. In 2004, during war games near Hawaii, the Navy’s sonar was implicated in a mass beaching of up to 200 melon-headed whales in Hanalei Bay. In 2003, the USS Shoup,operating in Washington’s Haro Strait, exposed a group of endangered southern resident killer whales to mid-frequency sonar, causing the animals to stop feeding and attempt to flee the sound.

“In 2003, NMFS learned firsthand the harmful impacts of Navy sonar in Washington waters when active sonar blasts distressed members of J pod, one of our resident pods of endangered orcas,” said Kyle Loring, staff attorney for Friends of the San Juans. “Given this history, it is particularly distressing that NMFS approved the Navy’s use of deafening noises in areas where whales and dolphins use their acute hearing to feed, navigate, and raise their young, even in designated sanctuaries and marine reserves.”

The Navy’s mitigation plan for sonar use relies primarily on visual detection of whales or other marine mammals by so-called “ watch-standers”  with binoculars on the decks of ships. If mammals are seen in the vicinity of an exercise, the Navy is to cease sonar use.

“Visual detection can miss anywhere from 25 percent to 95 percent of the marine mammals in an area,” said Heather Trim, director of policy for People for Puget Sound. “It’s particularly unreliable in rough seas or in bad weather. We learn more every day about where whales and other mammals are most likely to be found — we want NMFS to put that knowledge to use to ensure that the Navy’s training avoids those areas when marine mammals are most likely there.”

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4 Responses

  1. I like the “endangered marine mammas” in the first paragraph. Kind of funny typo.

  2. Too funny for words Bob, working without a net!

  3. [...] Lawsuit challenges naval sonar testingSummit County Citizens VoiceLast week, a coalition of conservation and American Indian groups sued the National Marine Fisheries Service for failing to protect thousands of whales, dolphins, porpoises, seals and sea lions from US Navy warfare training exercises along the coasts …Groups sue over effect Navy's sonar use has on marine lifeBoston GlobeEnvironmentalists sue to protect whales from Navy sonarReutersWhale advocates sue to restrict US Navy sonar useGlobal Adventures, LLCTelegraph.co.uk -CBS Newsall 404 news articles » [...]

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