National security vs. marine protection

The amphibious transport dock ship PCU San Diego arrives at its namesake home port April 6, 2012.


By TAYLOR HILL | The Orange County Register | Published: March 7, 2013

The Navy's proposal to expand its offshore testing and training programs off Southern California's coast will be reviewed at Friday's California Coastal Commission meeting in San Diego, where discussion on the plan's safety procedures for marine mammals is expected.

The proposed plan is an expansion of the Navy's current training impacts in the Southern California Range Complex, which extends from Dana Point to the Mexican border, and more than 600 nautical miles southwest into the Pacific Ocean.

While the 120,000-square-nautical-mile area has been used for military testing for more than 60 years, new studies show that the Navy's varying levels of testing can lead to the incidental harassment of marine mammals, resulting in behavior changes, hearing loss, or even death.

The proposal has perpetuated the debate between maintaining national security and protecting the environment, and what amount of "take" of marine mammals should be tolerated for Navy training.

Testing takes toll

"Take," in terms of the Marine Mammal Protection Act, is defined as the harassment, capturing or killing of any marine mammal. Take is further defined in different levels, with a Level A harassment described as any pursuit, torment, or annoyance, which has the potential to injure a marine mammal or marine mammal stock in the wild, and Level B harassment outlined as any activity with the potential to disturb a marine mammal in the wild by causing a disruption of its behavioral patterns, including feeding, breeding and migration.

Sonar testing, underwater detonations, missile launches, anti-submarine warfare and ship strikes are just a few of the training programs that can have negative impacts to the area's whales, dolphins, seals and sea lions, and would be allowed under the current proposal.

According to the Navy's report, the activities could result in the behavioral harassment of up to 1.78 million marine mammals per year, significant injuries to 336 marine mammals, and 26 mortalities. The permit required by the National Marine Fisheries Service would run for five years from 2014 to 2019, and allows for up to 130 marine mammal deaths over that time.

"The amount of activity they are proposing is enormous," said Michael Jasny, senior policy analyst for the National Research Defense Council. "It's like turning the waters off our coast into a battleground, which can have a devastating impact to these animals."

While the Navy's most recent estimates for marine mammal casualties are higher in comparison to the 2007 Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) numbers, Navy project manager Alex Stone said the increase is due to more comprehensive analysis, taking into account not just training activities, but equipment testing and maintenance activities as well.

"Last time, we just looked at a few primary sources of impacts, the big sources," said Stone, who oversaw the EIS from 2007. "This time, it's much more comprehensive, and it looks at anything the Navy does that puts sound in the water or an explosive charge in the area."

The added scrutiny, he says, is the main factor in the larger "take" numbers, not necessarily the modifications or addition of tests being conducted.

In addition, Navy spokesman Mark Matsunaga pointed out that the larger figures are only a worst-case scenario, taking into account the maximum testing procedures allowed over that time period, and even those would have a negligible impact on the affected species.

"The Navy needs to train and test because its mission is national defense and to protect the United States and the global commons of the ocean," Matsunaga said. "It can't be replicated synthetically."

Coastal Commission

Approval by the Coastal Commission is just one part of the process for the Navy to get their expanded Hawaii-Southern California Training and Testing Environmental Impact Statement, which would combine the two areas under one permit. Only the Southern California Range Complex is under the jurisdiction of the Coastal Commission.

According to the staff report, the Coastal Commission has listed six conditions for the Navy to modify their testing plans to meet the state's environmental standards. Those include expanding the safety zone to 2,000 yards when marine mammals are present, and avoiding testing in areas that are found to be biologically important to whales and other species including the Marine Protected Areas along the coast and at the Channel Islands.

Mark Deleplaine, the Coastal Commission's federal consistency manager, said the Navy was given similar conditions to adhere to in the 2007 permit review, and disagreed with them. The result was a lawsuit filed by NRDC claiming the Navy's testing program did not succumb to the National Environmental Policy Act, which requires federal agencies to adhere to environmental standards.

"I would be surprised if we had a different outcome this time around," Deleplaine said.

The meeting is scheduled to start at 8:30 a.m. Friday at the Bahia Resort Hotel in San Diego.

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