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Are Whales At Risk From Navy Sonar Training Plans?

Active sonar is the Navy’s best weapon to detect the presence of hostile submarines. But that same powerful underwater pulse of sound can harm or even kill whales and other marine mammals. Now, the Navy is seeking permission to continue using a huge swath of the Northwest coast – from northern California to the Canadian border — for a wide range of naval training and practice, including sonar. The Navy says it’s taking precautions, but others say it’s not enough.

Courtesy NOAA

On May 5, 2003, Ken Balcomb noticed something very strange in Haro Strait, a body of water along the U.S.-Canadian border in Washington State.

Balcomb said, “All the porpoises and the minke whales and the killer whales were fleeing the area.”

Balcomb is senior scientist and director at the Center for Whale Research on San Juan Island, Washington. He says the animals looked like they were frantically trying to escape something. 

He said the whales “came right up along the shoreline, directly in front of my house. And then it looked as though they were going to strand on the beach at my house.”

At the same time, a deafening sound was picked up by underwater microphones used by researchers to record killer whale vocalizations.

A Navy destroyer, the USS Shoup, was using active sonar as part of an exercise in Haro Strait, generating pulses of 140 decibels or more. That’s as loud as standing near a fighter jet during take-off.

In the following days, at least 10 harbor porpoises were found dead in the area, some with blood coming from their heads. Some frozen bodies were sent for analysis, but it couldn’t be conclusively determined if the sonar contributed to the deaths.

For Ken Balcomb, it felt like deja vu. Three years earlier, he’d studied a mass stranding of dolphins following a Navy sonar exercise in the Bahamas. Balcomb says he suspected the intense pressure of the sonar pulses played a role.

Balcomb explained, “So I collected and froze heads and took them to Harvard Medical School and we CAT scanned them and showed they had hemorrhagic damage in the brain and ears.”

These incidents and others like them led to limitations on how and where the Navy can conduct sonar exercises. Now, as the Navy seeks to renew permits to train and test in the Northwest, it’s trying to minimize the harm to marine mammals.

John Mosher is in charge of the Navy’s environmental review of the project. He says the plan is to have trained lookouts keep an eye out for whales.

Mosher said,  “Their job is to look for marine life, and if any is detected, to notify those people on the ship who are operating those systems and operating the ship.”

If animals are spotted, sonar testing could be delayed till they left the area. Mosher says the Navy is very concerned about its impact on wildlife.

Mosher explained, “We’re certainly not out there just blindly doing the training without any regard for the environment. There are hundreds of people doing what I do, and that’s ensuring we’re doing everything we can to protect the environment while we do that very important mission.”

Mosher says that mission – protecting the nation – requires that sailors train and practice frequently.

Mosher said, “These are skills that are not easy, they are perishable and can be lost over time, so continual training is an absolute necessity.”

But Zak Smith, an attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group, says the government could do a lot more to reduce the threat to whales. He says the National Marine Fisheries Service, which is responsible for marine mammal protection, has let the Navy off easy.

Smith said, “Here they have consistently taken no steps to keep the Navy out of areas that are high in density for marine mammals.”

The Natural Resources Defense Council has been in court for several years, trying to force the government to put stricter limits on the Navy’s use of sonar in coastal waters where whales are present. Smith points to documents in which the Navy concedes that, despite its efforts to avoid harm, it expects to impact marine mammals hundreds of thousands of times over the five-year permit period. He says that shows the effect of the Navy’s safety measures is limited.

Smith explained, “And that limitation is, it only really works to limit the most serious harm.”

Smith says the number of whales and other marine mammals outright killed or permanently deafened may be decreased by the lookouts and other Navy precautions, but other impacts that damage the animals’ ability to feed or reproduce won’t.

Smith said, “Temporary hearing loss will continue, behavioral disruption will continue, and their lookout regime doesn’t do anything to limit that.”

Smith says the Navy should be restricted from using sonar during times of the year when seasonal migrations bring concentrations of whales into coastal waters. Ken Balcomb, from the Center for Whale Research agrees. For example, he says, the Northwest’s endangered orca whales typically spend May through October in the inside waters near Puget Sound and Georgia Strait.

Balcomb said,”Likewise the migrations of gray whales, blue whales, fin whales. We know the productivity areas that they visit. These should be taken into account.”

The Navy says that to maintain combat readiness, its personnel must be able to train in all areas, in all seasons.

The Navy is holding a series of public meetings on the environmental impact statement for the Northwest Training and Testing Area. Meetings will be held in communities from Oak Harbor, Washington to Fort Bragg California. The deadline for comment is March 25.

Open House Information Sessions: 5-8 p.m. Navy Presentation: 6:30 p.m.

Oregon: Monday, March 3, 2014

Astoria High School Student Commons

1001 W. Marine Drive

Astoria, OR

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Isaac Newton Magnet School Gym

825 NE 7th St.

Newport, OR

California: Thursday, March 6, 2014

Red Lion Hotel Redwood Ballroom

1929 4th St.Eureka, CA

Friday, March 7, 2014

Redwood Coast Senior Center West Room

490 N. Harold St.

Fort Bragg, CA

Washington: Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2014

Oak Harbor High School

Student Union Building

1 Wildcat Way

Oak Harbor, WA

Thursday, Feb. 27, 2014

Cascade High School Student Commons

801 E. Casino Road

Everett, WA

Friday, Feb. 28, 2014

North Kitsap High School Commons

1780 NE Hostmark St.

Poulsbo, WA