The Navy plans to increase sonar testing, even as research reveals signs that the loud underwater noise could disturb marine mammals. Pictured: Navy minemen monitor the display of the AN/SQQ 32 variable depth mine hunting detection and classification sonar aboard the mine countermeasures ship USS Ardent (MCM 12) in 2011. (MC2 Lewis Hunsaker / Navy)
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SAN DIEGO — The National Marine Fisheries Service announced Monday that it has decided to grant the Navy permits for its plans that will intensify its sonar use in the Pacific over the next five years, despite the objection of environmentalists who say the military is not doing enough to protect marine mammals from the loud underwater noise.
The military insists the training and testing program will have a negligible impact on marine populations.
The Navy estimates that its activities could inadvertently kill 186 whales and dolphins off the East Coast and 155 off Hawaii and Southern California, mostly from explosives.
It calculates more than 11,000 serious injuries off the East Coast and 2,000 off Hawaii and Southern California, along with nearly 2 million minor injuries, such as temporary hearing loss, off each coast. It also predicts marine mammals might change their behavior — such as swimming in a different direction — in 27 million instances.
NMFS granted the permits for the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico last month. The Pacific permit was the final one.
Environmentalists, who believe the harm to marine life will be greater, opposed the latest decision.
“Navy exercises are multiplying off California, populations of beaked whales here are crashing, and what is the administration doing? Whistling past the graveyard,” Michael Jasny of the Natural Resources Defense Council said in an email.
Environmentalists won a small victory in September when a federal judge ruled the marine fisheries agency did not consider the latest science when it granted permits last year.
In Monday’s ruling, the agency said it will review the latest scientific data yearly with the Navy to determine if enough is being done to mitigate the risks.
Reported mass strandings of beaked whales have increased around the world since the military started using sonar more than half a century ago. The sounds can scare animals into shallow waters where they can become disoriented and wash ashore.
Aside from beachings, biologists are concerned about prolonged stress from changes in diving, feeding and communication habits. Only in the past decade have scientists had the technology to closely monitor the behavior of whales and dolphins.
Two recent studies off the Southern California coast found certain endangered blue whales and beaked whales stopped feeding and fled from recordings of noise similar to military sonar.
Beaked whales are highly sensitive to sound and account for the majority of strandings near military exercises.
Navy officials say it’s vital to national security that sailors receive realistic sonar training, and they use simulators where possible.
Environmentalists want more protections and favored the creation of safety zones that would guarantee no high-intensity sonar activity near marine sanctuaries and areas where blue, fin and gray whales gather seasonally.