science environment

Critics Say Whales Put At Risk By Navy Testing Plan

By Ashley Ahearn (KUOW/EarthFix)
Seattle Oct. 3, 2015 12 a.m.

The Navy released the final environmental review Friday for its proposed sonar and explosives training practices in waters off the coast of the Northwest.

The Navy currently conducts training exercises in an area of the northeastern Pacific Ocean, roughly the size of Montana. It needs to renew its federal permit under the Marine Mammal Protection Act in order to continue and expand those exercises.

The plan calls for detonating explosives, moving vessels, and deploying 700 more sonobuoys per year. That's an increase over the previous rate of deployment for sonobuoy — small cylindrical floats that use active sonar to detect enemy submarines.


The sonar can disturb marine animals' behavior. The Navy says it keeps a lookout for marine life before conducting tests. It estimates that the added buoys will lead to more than 100,000 potential sonar exposures for marine life.

Despite receiving more than 1,000 comments from the public, environmentalists say the Navy made no significant changes to prevent impacts on fish and wildlife.

"The Navy is relying almost exclusively on (human) look-outs posted on the decks of ships to look for marine mammals before an activity starts," said Steve Mashuda with EarthJustice. "We have been encouraging the Navy to adopt more effective mitigation measures and that appears to fall on deaf ears."

The group has pushed the Navy to agree to limit activities in areas that are known hotspots for marine mammal feeding, breeding and migration. EarthJustice also has called on the Navy to refrain from conducting activities in the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary altogether.

The Navy recognizes the importance of the sanctuary and does its best to conduct activities elsewhere, said John Mosher, the environment program manager for the Navy in the Northwest.

"But to say that we would never need to use those areas of the coast ... to train and test in, we have to keep that flexibility available to us and can't simply say, "we'll just do it all elsewhere," Mosher said.  

"The ability to detect adversary submarines is a very important mission of the Navy so that is one of the reasons we use sonar," Mosher said. "The Navy's mission is to be prepared to be deployed at all times, around the world."

The Navy released an earlier draft of its environmental review in January. Politicians, environmentalists, federal agencies and members of the public submitted comments raising concerns that the Navy's proposed increase in activities do not come with the requisite protective measures to ensure fish and wildlife are not harmed.

"It is clear that the Navy's (proposal) is deficient in a number of key areas and should be revised and reissued for further public review prior to finalization," wrote U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore.

"We remain concerned about adverse effects to marine mammals - including Endangered Species Act listed marine mammals," wrote the Environmental Protection Agency in its comments.

Earlier this fall, environmental groups reached a settlement with the Navy that restricts military  training and testing activities in environmentally sensitive parts of its Southern California and Hawaii training range.

The Navy said the public can still submit comments on the final environmental impact statement as it awaits permits from the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS).

"We are very much hoping and looking to NMFS to do their job to protect those marine mammals and we'll see what happens," Mashuda said.