Several environmental organizations have filed a lawsuit against the National Marine Fisheries Service, alleging that it has dropped the ball by issuing a permit allowing the United States Navy to increase its training operations by 20 percent in an area that is one of the most biologically diverse places in the world.
The permit allows the Navy to conduct training operations through 2015 and provides little mitigation or measures to avoid or reduce harm to marine mammals, wrote Steven Mashuda, to this reporter. Mashuda is a staff attorney with Earth Justice, in Seattle.
What’s worse is that the NMFS permit, as written, allows the Navy to train 24/7 in every square inch of water in the range.
The job of the NMFS is to protect marine creatures from unnecessary harm. However, it refused to exclude sonar use, or any of the other forms of warfare training that the Navy uses.
“Because the Fisheries Service fell down on the job and failed to require the Navy to take reasonable and effective actions to protect them, we’re asking the court to send the permit back to the agency to include those protections,” he wrote.
The Navy obtained the permit in Nov. 2010 and has been training as a result of this permit for about 18 months.
When the Navy conducts these exercises, mid-frequency sonar, surface-to-air gunnery, as well as missile exercises and underwater explosions are used, and this poses the potential to harm the sensitive hearing of many marine mammals.
Especially a pod of endangered Southern Resident killer whales.
There are only 87 of these killer whales left.
The whales’ habitat is part of the Navy’s Northwest Training Range in Washington, Oregon and Northern California. It stretches from northern California to the Canadian border and encompasses an area the size of California, Mashuda wrote.
Earth Justice is representing The Center for Biological Diversity, Friends of the Earth, Friends of the San Juans, the InterTribal Sinkyone Wilderness Council, People for Puget Sound, and the Natural Resources Defense Council.
The Navy uses sonar to detect submarines. It emits very loud pings which can be damaging to the sensitive hearing of dolphins and whales. In the search for food and while communicating with each other, these animals employ sound.
“They’re extremely sensitive to underwater sound,” Mashuda wrote. “If the intensity is high enough, sonar can cause physical injury and even death.”
For more information on how damaging sonar and other aspects of naval training exercises can be, click here.
It also interferes with the animals’ breeding, migration, feeding, and rearing of offspring. This may cause whales, dolphins and other marine mammals to avoid areas critical for these needs, Mashuda said.
This is something that this small pod of killer whales can ill afford.
“These whales are so imperiled that they need all the help we can give them,” he said.
This population is so small, that elsewhere the NMFS has reported that injury or death of a single member, especially a reproductive female, could place the entire population in jeopardy, Mashuda noted.
However, the NMFS and the Navy estimate the training exercises will affect 2-14 killer whales.
This is inexcusable. Why harm these creatures in the first place? Why even conduct these exercises in an area that is home to animals that are so vulnerable?
“Increasing exposure to harmful training exercises in their habitat is exactly the opposite of what we should be doing now,” Mashuda wrote.
The Navy has seemingly adopted a schizophrenic attitude in regards to these training exercises and the effects they have on wildlife.
In May, the Navy issued a statement which acknowledged that more marine mammals may be harmed than previously thought, according to this.
What other animals does this affect?
Almost every other marine mammal in the vicinity would be affected, including blue whales, fin whales, humpback whales, sei whales, sperm whales, gray whales, Steller sea lions, California sea lions, harbor porpoises, beaked whales, harbor seals, and several species of dolphins.
What few people seem to understand is that if a species becomes extinct, it causes an impact on ecosystems that can have dire consequences on all creatures, human and otherwise. Readers can find out more here and here.
Yes a military is necessary, but the lines get blurred here. Even in laws that protect marine mammals, Congress has made it clear that military readiness training is necessary, Mashuda noted.
“To some extent, naval personnel need the opportunity to train on the equipment that they may need to use in time of conflict,” he wrote. “That general principle isn’t really at issue here-our clients recognize that training is important.”
Can the military conduct these exercises without causing harm to marine mammals? Hopefully so. Mashuda is optimistic. Environmental protection and the protection of sea life can be compatible with what the Navy needs to do, he notes.
What makes this more tragic is that even if the exercises kill a marine mammal, the odds of finding it are very low, Mashuda wrote.
“This is a big part of the problem with sonar around the globe-when whales die, they sink,” he wrote. “So scientists believe that the impacts we see (beaching, etc.) are a small fraction of the actual harm.”
Then there are those creatures that are seriously injured or harassed, their lives forever altered.
These animals, especially the Southern Resident Killer Whales, concern Earthjustice as much as the ones who are killed outright by the training exercises.
“Harassing these critically imperiled whales and causing them to abandon feeding or breeding areas can cause huge harm to the population,” he wrote.
Some areas where marine mammals gather in large numbers at certain times of the year deserve seasonal or year-round protection. The Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary in coastal Washington is one of these places, Mashuda writes.
He believes there are reasonable steps that the Navy can employ to avoid impacts on marine mammals, including:
- · Scheduling training to avoid times of the year when sensitive species gather in critical biological areas along this vast stretch of coast, including areas like the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary, or the biologically rich waters off of the Oregon and Northern California Coasts.
- · Establishing training exclusion zones so that the Navy would be able to avoid the most significant concentrations of marine mammals.
- · Developing and utilizing better techniques for detecting marine mammals before exercises begin in training areas.
Shouldn’t the Navy also be developing newer methods that won’t harm marine life? Billions of dollars are spent on more ways to kill people and destroy nature.
This is tragic. The extinction of a species is irreversible; these animals won’t be coming back. As more and more species become extinct, ecological collapse is inevitable.
This beautiful video showcases killer whales at work, hunting Pacific White-sided dolphins. Their hunting is seamless and well-timed. In fact, their efforts are so sophisticated that it’s difficult to find them in the panicking mass of dolphins.
This must have been stunning for the people who were fortunate enough to see this first-hand. Nature operating exactly the way it is supposed to.
Let’s hope it continues this way.