YOKOSUKA NAVAL BASE, Japan — An environmental group has filed suit to prevent Navy training exercises in the Pacific that it says will harm massive numbers of whales and dolphins. The Navy says the maneuvers will have little long-term effect on marine mammals.
The National Resources Defense Council suit, filed this week, accuses the National Marine Fisheries Service of violating multiple federal laws by allowing the Navy to ramp up sonar and live-fire training in Hawaii and California during the next five years. The action calls for the Northern California U.S. District Court to halt the training, which began in December.
The lawsuit also accuses the Navy of violating the Coastal Zone Management Act, after the service said it would proceed despite the California Coastal Commission’s unanimous rejection of the training plan.
The fisheries service rule allows the Navy’s training to incidentally kill up to 13 marine mammals annually in the training areas over the next five years and cause up to about 1.7 million annual incidents of low-level harassment, which includes potential disruption of nursing and breeding. The Navy also asked for authorization to produce up to 266 annual incidents that could result in injuries to marine mammals.
The Navy made the requests for mortality and injury allowance as a contingency, and it “does not anticipate any marine mammal strandings or that the mortalities predicted by the acoustic modeling will occur,” according to a 2012 Navy study.
Over a period of 20 years from 1991 to 2010. there have been a total of 16 Navy vessel strikes on marine mammals in Southern California, and five Navy vessel strikes in the Hawaii training area.
However, the NRDC argues in its lawsuit that both the fisheries service and the Navy are ignoring the “best available science” in their findings, saying the noise from sonar, underwater demolition and pile driving will cause significant long-term damage to blue whales, beaked whales and some endangered species.
“The science proving the link between sonar exposure and population decline is mounting,” said Michael Jasny, director of NRDC’s marine mammal protection project, in a statement. “And so are the solutions that could prevent thousands of needless injuries and hundreds of deaths.”
The NRDC said the sonar training poses a particular danger to deep-diving beaked whales, as well as to one of the world’s most endangered species, the western gray whale.
The training areas to be used through January 2019 are the Hawaii Range Complex, a 1,700-by-1,600 nautical mile span of the Pacific Ocean, and the Southern California Range Complex, which extends about 600 nautical miles into the ocean from San Diego.
Forty-three marine mammal species are found in the testing areas, including whales, dolphins, sea otters, seals and sea lions, according to the 2012 Navy study.
The most intense underwater sounds within the Navy’s training efforts are those produced by anti-submarine warfare sonar and explosives, according to the Navy report.
Although the Navy report concedes that the sounds are within most whales’ audible ranges, they are normally limited in time, area and frequency. Sonar pulses last up to a few seconds each, and antisubmarine sonar generally transmits only a few times per minute.
“Furthermore, events are geographically and temporally dispersed and most events are limited to a few hours,” according to the Navy report.