The U.S. Navy says it will not adopt recommendations by the California
Coastal Commission for limiting harm to marine mammals, including giant blue
whales, from Navy sonar training, potentially moving the two sides closer to
another round of legal conflict over the issue.
In a July 31 letter, Navy officials said they disagreed with the commission's finding in March that the Navy's plan for training exercises did not include sufficient information.
The Navy plan covers the period between 2014 and 2019 for training off Southern California and around the Hawaiian islands.
Training includes the use of sonar and underwater explosives.
Sonar has been linked to some whale strandings and possible damage to whales' auditory systems, although the Navy says strandings from Navy sonar have not been reported in California waters.
The commission requested that the Navy add "time-area" closures, stopping training in sensitive areas at times of year when certain marine mammals are known to be present -- for example, during August and September, when blue whale numbers increase along parts of the California coast.
The commission also urged the Navy to increase the radius of the area within which training is stopped if marine mammals are observed.
Navy officials, however, say the protections now in place are adequate to prevent significant harm. The Navy has estimated a maximum of less than 8 million instances of disturbances to marine mammals during the five-year training period, about 2,000 injuries and about 130 deaths, although Navy officials say they expect the actual numbers to be far lower.
"We're still working with them," said Mark Delaplaine, a coastal manager with the commission. "At some point, the clock is going to run out and we'll have to have a response if we haven't come to an agreement."
Navy officials also said Monday that they will continue to work with the Coastal Commission.
"The Navy is working with the California Coastal Commission and its staff to resolve differences regarding the Navy's Consistency Determination for its training and testing activities that are analyzed in the Hawaii-Southern California Training and Testing Environmental Impact Statement," a statement from the Navy said Monday. "The Navy has been training and testing in that area for decades without major harm to marine life there."
The Navy wants to have its authorizations, including from the National Marine Fisheries Service, in place in time to begin its new round of training in January.
A similar fight led to a legal confrontation in 2008, when the environmental group, Natural Resources Defense Council, joined with the Coastal Commission to oppose the Navy.
That resulted in a preliminary injunction against the Navy requiring additional protections.
But President George W. Bush granted an exemption for the training, and the U.S. Supreme Court later overturned the injunction.
So far it's unknown how the latest controversy will play out, although the NRDC is keeping a close watch, said Michael Jasny, director of the group's marine mammal protection program.
"The Navy's unwillingness to seriously consider the Commission's very reasonable recommendations does not bode well," Jasny said.
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