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A surfer walks past a massive 65-foot dead fin whale as it lays on the beach at Bolsa Chica State Beach in Huntington Beach on Thursday, May 20, 2021. It is believed to be the same whale that was struck by an Australian Navy ship last week and washed up late Wednesday, May 19 in Huntington Beach.

A surfer walks past a massive 65-foot dead fin whale as it lays on the beach at Bolsa Chica State Beach in Huntington Beach on Thursday, May 20, 2021. It is believed to be the same whale that was struck by an Australian Navy ship last week and washed up late Wednesday, May 19 in Huntington Beach. (Mark Rightmire/Orange County Register/SCNG)

(Tribune News Service) — After four whales were struck last year, Navy officials are now asking for some wiggle room in their agreement with the National Marine Fisheries Service for training in the Pacific Ocean because it might be hard to guarantee another whale isn’t hit before the agreement runs out in December 2025.

Officials with the U.S. Pacific Fleet and Navy Systems Command said in their request that recent evaluations and scientific research of activity in the training range determined there could be, though low, a probability that another whale might be injured or killed.

“The Navy went back and looked at the numbers and looked at the science given what happened last year,” said Michael Milstein, a spokesman for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Fisheries Service. “Now they are asking us to review that to make sure the whales have the protection that they need.”

NOAA is tasked with addressing the effects of human activities on protected marine species. It issues the Navy permits, typically for five or seven years, that set limits on how many animals can be killed or injured in a specific time period before the Navy is considered in violation.

Until last year, only two whales had been killed in ship strikes since 2009, when the Navy started having to secure permits for training. Both occurred that first year south-southwest of San Clemente Island.

Under the current seven-year permit, the agreement would be violated after three whales were killed or more than two of a specific species. The Navy would have to ask NOAA to revisit the agreement and the Navy could be exposed to litigation or sanction possibilities.

Two whales of unknown species were struck and killed by Navy ships last June and July. And in May 2021, two fin whales, determined to likely have been mother and calf, were struck and killed by a visiting Australian Navy destroyer. The ship sailed into San Diego Bay with the whales hanging off its bow and several days later, one washed up at Bolsa Chica Beach.

NOAA officials are still reviewing the incident and the Navy’s argument is that since the fin whales were struck by a foreign ship, the numbers don’t count against their permit. Officials from the Navy’s Pacific Fleet also said the ship was not training with the U.S. Navy at the time of the strikes.

Following the death of the fin whales, the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental group, sent a letter to the Navy, the Pentagon and the U.S. Department of Commerce asking the Navy to look at its three ranges between Hawaii and Southern California and examine further how training might be affecting marine mammals and how it can better avoid killing or injuring animals. The center’s letter threatened the federal agencies with a lawsuit if corrective action was not taken.

The letter also asked the Fisheries Service to re-examine its previous conclusion that the Navy’s activities have no more than a negligible impact on endangered whales.

Kristen Monsell, an attorney for the center, said her group is reviewing the Navy’s request and will provide comments.

“While I’m glad to see the Navy proposing the use of more observers, it’s disappointing to see that they’re not proposing more effective mitigation measures, like requiring ships to slow down when traveling through important whale habitats,” she said. “Whales are often hard to see even under the best weather conditions.”

Navy training meant to be as realistic as possible can include explosions in the water, torpedo tests, use of sonar and high-energy lasers, underwater vehicles and multiple ships moving around at once.

In their request to the Fisheries Service, Navy officials said they “reacted as quickly as possible for all ships at sea” after last summer’s whale strikes to underline the importance of marine species awareness and avoidance. Instead of having one lookout that stands at the stern and aft of a ship, they will now post three aboard all ships that will monitor the waters day and night. If an animal is spotted, ships are to immediately reduce power and speed.

Sailors also stop active sonar transmissions when marine mammals are within a predetermined safety range and safety zones are established around detonations and maneuvering vessels. The Navy also limits training when it is breeding, migration and feeding times for specific species.

The Navy also has new technology integrated into ship navigation simulators which train officers on the bridge and those standing watch on how to spot marine mammals.

A large training exercise known as Rim of the Pacific starts later this month – nearly 40 surface ships, four submarines and more than 170 aircraft and forces from 25 nations are expected. Navy officials said the additional precautions will be in place.

John Calambokidis, a biologist with the nonprofit Cascadia Research Collective which provides data to NOAA, said the Navy is diligent in reporting whale strikes and has taken precautions to reduce injuries. Especially in comparison to other types of ships, such as cargo ships, he said, which represent “a much greater source of risk of ship strikes that might not get as well documented.”

He said one way the Navy could help protect marine mammals would be to be more “willing to cooperate with, instead of blocking, initiatives to find routes cargo ships can take, including through Navy ranges that would reduce the overall threat of ship strikes to whales.”

The Navy’s request to loosen the limits for this permit period is now open for public input until July 1. After that, NOAA will make a decision.

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