The U.S. Navy and the California Coastal Commission might be heading for
another conflict over offshore military training and potential harm to marine
mammals -- including the giants of the sea, blue whales.
At a meeting Friday in San Diego, the commission will consider whether to request additional protections for marine mammals from the Navy, which can cause potential harm or disturbance with training activities that include the use of sonar and underwater explosives.
If the Navy does not agree to the requests, the commission staff is recommending that the Comission object to the training. In the past, such differences have led to legal confrontations.
"We're much more concerned, and believe that you have to have additional precautions," said Mark Delaplaine, a coastal manager with the Coastal Commission. "It doesn't make sense to train where there are large amounts of sea mammals."
The Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group with a long history of lawsuits over Navy training, also is poised for a potential clash. The group will urge the commission simply to reject the Navy's plans for training, rather than try to set conditions.
Court challenges by the Commission and the NRDC resulted in a preliminary injunction requiring additional protections from the Navy in 2008, though an exemption for training was granted by President Bush and the injunction was later overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court.
"Twice before, the Commission approved the Navy's plans, but set reasonable conditions to protect our coastal wildlife," said Michael Jasny, director of NRDC's marine mammal project. "And twice before, the Navy ignored the Commission's recommendations. Now the Navy is back for another round."
Late in January, the Navy published a training proposal for the waters off Southern California and around the Hawaiian Islands between 2014 and 2019.
It included an estimated maximum of 9 million instances of potential disturbance to marine mammal behavior, 2,000 injuries and about 150 deaths.
But Navy officials have said they expect far fewer harmful effects to occur.
A Navy spokesman said the Coastal Commission staff report was still under review and that the Navy would not comment until Friday's meeting.
"We understand that the Navy is obligated to be consistent with the state's coastal zone requirements, to the maximum extent practicable," said Navy spokesman Mark Matsunaga. "And we believe we are."
The Navy's proposal includes existing protection measures, among them spotters on the surface or in the air, who would shut down sonar training if whales or other marine mammals are seen within a specified area.
Other measures would be enhanced, including, in some cases, an expansion of the radius around underwater explosives training, which could not take place if sea mammals were detected inside the zone.
Both the Coastal Commission staff and the NRDC, however, question the adequacy of the Navy's protective measures.
The new conditions the commission staff is recommending include larger "shutdown" areas, within which training must stop when marine mammals are detected, avoiding use of mid-frequency sonar in sensitive areas, such as marine sanctuaries, and reducing vessel speeds in sensitive areas, among others.
Sonar pulses have been linked to strandings of whales, and perhaps even to injuries to whales' auditory systems, although no such strandings have been reported in Southern California waters
Still, a recent study of beaked whales, a group some consider especially sensitive to sonar, found that some species appeared to decline in population off the U.S. West Coast over a 18-year period ending in 2008.
The study said causes of the decline were unknown, but that ecosystem changes and Navy sonar were possibilities that "merit investigation." The study also lists other possible causes and says some Navy ranges have high densities of beaked whales.
Delaplaine said more protective measures are wise even though measuring actual harm to marine mammals is difficult.
"I'm just torn between the fact that we haven't seen strandings in this area, and these very large numbers (in Navy estimates) that are really a cause for alarm," he said.
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