The U.S. Navy wants to renew a five-year permit that could potentially injure or even kill whales, dolphins, seals and other marine mammals while using sonar and explosives during training exercises off Cape Cod and in 2.6 million square miles along the Atlantic seaboard and in the Gulf of Mexico.
The Navy will hold a public hearing on Wednesday in Providence, R.I., on its draft environmental impact statement, part of the process to obtain an exemption from the Marine Mammal Protection Act. The act, passed in 1972, forbids harming, harassing or killing any of those animals without permission from the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service.
In its impact statement, the Navy says the proposed testing could affect as many as 1.6 million animals per year during the five-year permit. They say there is little scientific proof that the sonar harms marine life, particularly if animals are not in close proximity to the source of the sonar or the explosion.
Although the fisheries service can require more stringent measures, the Navy has proposed to use lookouts on ships and aircraft to watch for evidence of marine mammals in a testing area. The Navy would stop testing long enough to give the animals time to disperse.
It's a strategy that environmentalists say doesn't go far enough.
"There are whale species that dive for a half-hour at a time. Add rough seas, bad weather, nighttime and the detection rate is pretty low," said Steve Mashuda, staff attorney for Earthjustice, a San Francisco-based environmental law group.
In January, Earthjustice and two other environmental groups -- the Natural Resources Defense Council based in New York City and the International Fund for Animal Welfare in Yarmouthport -- sued the fisheries service for what they say is inadequate protection of marine mammals from Navy sonar and explosives in Pacific Northwest testing grounds.
The environmentalists want seasonal closures of areas to protect migrating mammals as well as closures in areas where members of a species are known to congregate for breeding, calving or feeding.
They say scientific research has already documented many of these sensitive areas, particularly for species such as the federally endangered North Atlantic right whale.
For the past two years, the fisheries service has been hosting workshops to gather information on these "hot spots" to help lessen the impact of training exercises.
The Navy, however, says that research led them to an opposite conclusion.
"There is not enough information out there to make a call that any one area is more important than another area," said Jene Nissen, Atlantic Fleet Training and Testing Program manager. "We had meetings with NMFS and we agreed that they had made progress and that there was a lot of work to be done."
The federal requirement that the Navy be ready to protect the nation means that they must train in all types of locations and that makes it hard to rule out specific areas, Nissen said. Public hearings would be the time and place to bring up any scientific evidence of any potential harm and additional mitigation to protect marine mammals, he said.
The Navy spent well over $100 million on acoustic research on sonar and marine mammals over the past seven years and $5 million monitoring training events and conducting surveys to look for marine mammals, Nissen said.
Training in the Northeast would be conducted on a smaller scale than elsewhere, he said, likely one or two ships at a time.
Environmental groups believe there is plenty of information available on marine mammal migration routes and gathering grounds and the Navy should have proposed either restricted access or come up with other mitigation. This is especially true along the Atlantic coast where mariners have been operating under management plans for the North Atlantic right whale to minimize fishing line entanglements and prevent fatal collisions.
"We are not satisfied with the activities proposed based on current science and the past impacts of such exercises on cetaceans," Patrick Ramage the International Fund for Animal Welfare Global Whale Program director wrote in an email to the Times. "Concern for endangered whales, dolphins and other species should not be relegated to the rear-guard. Military training exercises should be designed so as to minimize impacts on these species."
The science on how marine mammals are affected by underwater noise is still a relatively new field, said fisheries service spokeswoman Connie Barclay.
Beaked whales appear to be the most susceptible to sonar. A 2009 report in Aquatic Mammals scientific journal said that 126 of the 136 reported beaked whale mass stranding events between 1874 and 2004 had been since 1950, after the powerful sonar used to detect submarines was first put into use. Only two, however, have been directly tied to sonar use. Another 27 occurred near a naval base or ship with no direct evidence that sonar was being used at the time.
In 2001 in the Bahamas, 17 animals, including 14 beaked whales, beached themselves during Navy sonar use. Seven died and some showed hemorrhages near their ears and around their brains. A report concluded that multiple sources of sonar combined with unusual ocean topography was at fault. But research into the 2005 stranding of 33 pilot whales near a sonar testing range in South Carolina was inconclusive.
The Navy, and some scientists, believe that there is little evidence that the sonar causes widespread damage. But other scientists believe it's likely there are incidents that go unreported and that there could be effects, such as temporary or permanent hearing loss that could be fatal for animals dependent on sound to survive.
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