This week, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) approved the Navy’s five-year plan to expand its sonar and live-fire training exercises in the Pacific ocean, but environmentalists are challenging the decision because of the threat it poses to marine life.
It’s been well established that marine mammals rely on hearing to navigate, communicate, feed and survive, and while there may be some dispute about how much damage the use of sonar causes, it and live-fire activities have been linked to mass whale strandings and deaths, in addition to causing stress, injuries and behavioral changes in other marine species.
“The whales and dolphins who wind up in the middle of the war games don’t stand a chance against the Navy. This proposal increases the predicted harm to marine mammals by more than 10 times. The Fisheries Service needs to do better to protect our oceans by preventing harm to the animals that call those oceans home,” said Miyoko Sakashita, oceans director at the Center for Biological Diversity.
The Navy insists that these training exercises are vital for preparing soldiers and requested authorization under the Marine Mammal Protection Act to carry out activities because the sounds generated by sonar and explosives may “affect the behavior of some marine mammals, cause a temporary loss of their hearing sensitivity or other injury.”
It has made a few promises that are supposed to limit the threats, such as creating a “humpback whale cautionary area” around Hawaii, but environmentalists don’t believe the proposed precautions will provide enough protection and are taking legal action.
Earthjustice, which is representing a coalition of conservation groups, immediately filed a lawsuit challenging NOAA’s approval of the Navy’s plans, which were also opposed by the California Coastal Commission.
“The science is clear: sonar and live-fire training in the ocean harms marine mammals,” said Marsha Green of Ocean Mammal Institute, which is among the groups being represented. “There are safer ways to conduct Navy exercises that include time and place restrictions to avoid areas known to be vital for marine mammals’ feeding, breeding and resting.”
According to the lawsuit, over the next five years, the authorized training will result in nearly 60,000 hours of the Navy’s most powerful mid-frequency active sonar and more than 450,000 hours of other mid-frequency sonar, low-frequency sonar, high-frequency sonar and the use of more than 260,000 explosives, which will send shock waves and sound energy through the water that can kill or injure marine mammals, in addition to causing physical injuries and behavioral changes to survivors.
In all, it will result in nearly 9.6 million instances of harm by disrupting vital behaviors such as migration, nursing, breeding, feeding and sheltering in waters that are home to a variety of species, including five species of endangered whales and two species of threatened and endangered seals. The groups are arguing that approval of the plan should be invalidated because it was granted without the opportunity for public comment, or the evaluation or consideration of alternatives, which are required under federal law.
“The lawsuit is not asking to stop the Navy from training,” said Susan Millward, executive director of Animal Welfare Institute, in a statement. “Rather, we are asking our government to take the required ‘hard look’ before inflicting this much harm on vulnerable marine mammals populations and to consider alternatives that would allow the Navy to achieve its goals with less damage. For taxpayer-funded activities at this scale, citizen oversight often helps create a better plan.”
The public has previously stood behind marine life on this issue. More than 67,500 people signed the last petition objecting to the Navy’s plans because of the harm it would cause and after about a second of watching the video below and hearing the noise, it’s not hard to understand why.
Photo credit: Thinkstock