According to a new 1,800 page draft environmental impact statement released by the U.S. Navy, marine life may be negatively impacted by underwater sonar and explosive testing more so than previously thought. The Navy uses sonar for a number of reasons, mainly to locate enemy torpedoes, submarines and mines. Pulses of sound, or sonar, are sent throughout the ocean in order to listen for echoes from nearby and distant objects. This new report focuses on testing activity in waters surrounding Southern California and Hawaii.
The new study, which uses more sophisticated computer models than in the past, accounts for animal behavior and covers projected training and testing planned between 2014 to 2019. The previous 2009-2013 Navy analysis highlighted that the use of sonar and explosives might “unintentionally cause injury or death to about 100 marine mammals, although no deaths have been reported.” However, one startling conclusion of the new study notes that “[the Navy's] training and testing with explosives will kill 1,000 animals over the next five years.”
Sonar testing, although an effective military tool, has been shown to disrupt the behavioral and feeding patterns of marine mammals. The Navy’s draft environmental impact statement estimates that its use of this technology could “unintentionally cause more than 1,600 instances of hearing loss or other injury to marine mammals each year” – much higher figures than previously thought. Hearing loss is a very serious concern for animals, like whales, that use hearing as their predominant means to understand and navigate their surroundings.
Zak Smith, staff attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said he’s “encouraged the Navy reduced the threshold for the level of sonar it found to affect beaked whales — a species that appears to be particularly sensitive to the noise.” The Navy said it altered the baseline frequency due to research demonstrating beaked whales specifically react and relocate when exposed to a “lower level of sound than earlier studies indicated.” Smith, however, is not satisfied with the new report overall, saying “while the Navy’s understanding of how much harm it’s activities cause marine mammals has increased, it hasn’t taken any corresponding steps to minimize this staggering level of harm.”
Sonar and explosive testing is not welcome activity for ocean life, which already faces significant challenges, including loss of biodiversity due to pollution runoff, overfishing and mounting trash and debris, such as the notorious Great Pacific Garbage Patch, or Pacific Gyre, and the newly discovered Atlantic Garbage Patch. These floating trash islands — the Pacific garbage patch being twice the size of Texas — pose a massive threat to ocean life, which can confuse floating plastic for jellyfish or other food sources. Plastic also breaks down into smaller pieces that can be ingested by fish, eventually making its way to our dinner plate.
Given the world’s oceans are already stressed, it would therefore behoove the Navy to take heed from their new study and be a bit more conservative in underwater testing, not only when marine mammals are present, but even when they’re not. Acting under foresight and precaution will help prevent any future underwater damage.
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