Santa Monica Observer - Community, Diversity, Sustainability and other Overused Words

Navy Gets Final Sonar Permit for Training


December 30, 2013

On Monday, the National Marine Fisheries Service announced it has authorized the Navy to use sonar and explosives in a massive swath of ocean between Southern California and Hawaii.

The ruling, good for five years starting in January, was no surprise to either side.

Environmental group Earthjustice filed a lawsuit the same day in Hawaii federal court. A spokesman for the Natural Resources Defense Council in Santa Monica said his organization is looking at all options, including litigation.

It could be round two in a case that went to the U.S. Supreme Court in 2008.

The Navy says train-like-you-fight war games are essential to prepare aircraft carrier groups for deployment - especially in the waters off Southern California, where most of the U.S. Pacific Fleet gets certified for battle.

"We've worked really closely with the National Marine Fisheries Service throughout this long process to make sure we get the best possible permit that takes advantage of the best science about the impacts and allows the Navy to do the testing and training we need to do," said Alex Stone, environmental planner for the Pacific Fleet in San Diego.

Over five years, the Navy estimates that work with ships, explosives and sonar will kill up to 155 marine mammals off Southern California and Hawaii.

Projections also anticipate 2,000 serious injuries and 9.6 million lower-level harassments, such as prompting whales or dolphins to leave an area or stop feeding.

In the past, the Supreme Court has ruled for the Navy in this debate, agreeing with the George W. Bush administration that the preparedness of Navy ships and sailors trumps potential harm to whales and dolphins.

The Navy maintains that sonar expertise is essential for national defense, especially as foreign navies - particularly the Chinese - build up their fleets of modern, quiet submarines.

But the Natural Resources Defense Council won a recent legal matchup in September, when a federal judge found that the fisheries service failed to apply the best available science in assessing impacts from Navy sonar in the waters of the Pacific Northwest.

That decision requires the fisheries agency to reassess its permits but doesn't force the Navy to halt activities.

Zak Smith, an NRDC lawyer, said the argument is the same for Southern California and Hawaii.

"They have a history of rubber stamping the Navy's requests," Smith said.

"What constructive role does the National Marine Fisheries Service play anymore? They spent hundreds of hours apparently reviewing the Navy's activities, talking to the public and scientists, funding studies that show harm to marine mammals - and their answer is, 'You are good to go, Navy. Nothing more from us.'"

Earthjustice is taking a slightly different tactic in its lawsuit filed Monday, though it also says the fisheries agency has forsaken its duty.

"When federally protected species are on the line, the law requires the Fisheries Service to take a hard look at ways to avoid harming them and to involve the public in examining alternative courses of action," David Henkin of Earthjustice said in a written statement.

A U.S. Justice Department spokesperson didn't respond to a request for comment Monday.

Under the fisheries permit, the Navy will continue taking steps to protect marine mammals.

They include establishing mitigation zones around warships that are using sonar, posting lookouts to search for creatures in those zones before sonar or explosives are employed, using a response plan when mammals become stranded and designating a humpback whale cautionary area around Hawaii in winter months.

In a press release, the Fisheries Service noted that the agency and the Navy will meet yearly to discuss new research and the results of Navy monitoring to determine if these steps need to be modified.

As it stands, Stone said the Navy's latest environmental impact statement is up to date on science.

Of four studies mentioned by the Natural Resources Defense Council on Monday as new research, he said all had been incorporated in the decision-making process.

The marine mammal debate is probably one of the Navy's most heated environmental issues.

Hundreds of people appear at hearings, like a California Coastal Commission meeting in March in San Diego, to ask regulators to protect whales, dolphins and seals who use their natural sonar to locate food and mates.

That ability can be disrupted - and the mammals' hearing damaged - by loud noises such as those created by Navy equipment. -utsasandiego


Reader Comments


Powered by ROAR Online Publication Software from Lions Light Corporation
© Copyright 2019

Rendered 04/18/2019 21:00