Navy weapons testing safe for marine mammals, report finds

Fifth Fleet Navy divers finish final procedures in preparation to recover a countermeasure mine device. Closer to U.S. shores, a federal report to be released this week will conclude that a range of activities across 2.6 million square miles of ocean from Maine to Texas, activities from sonar tests to large-caliber gunnery training, has a "negligible" impact on marine life.


By DAVID FLESHLER | Sun Sentinel | Published: January 29, 2013

A Navy plan for testing submarines off Fort Lauderdale, torpedoes off Rhode Island and other weapons systems at installations across the East Coast will have only "negligible" impact on whales, dolphins and other marine life, according to a draft federal report to be released this week.

The Navy's testing and training plan for 2014-2019 calls for air-to-surface missile practice, large-caliber gunnery training, blasting the water with sonar and many other activities across 2.6 million square miles of ocean from Maine to Texas. The Navy calls these essential activities for maintaining combat readiness.

Included is the South Florida Ocean Measurement Facility, a network of undersea cables and detection devices off Port Everglades used to determine the acoustic characteristics of ships and submarines. That facility, which runs from near-shore waters to 25 miles out, will see increased testing of surface ships and submarines, mine countermeasures and unmanned underwater vehicles.

Twenty environmental groups signed a letter last July saying the work would cause "unprecedented harm" to marine wildlife.

But a draft report by the National Marine Fisheries Service says the Navy's activities are highly unlikely to harm any species as a whole, although individual animals could be injured or killed. The report says marine mammals will be exposed to sound from active sonar, underwater explosions and pile driving, as well as the danger of ship strikes. The use of sonar by the Navy has been linked to whale strandings, the fisheries service said.

Injured over the five-year period would be up to 3,488 minke whales, Atlantic spotted dolphins, bottlenose dolphins and other marine mammals, according to the Navy's estimates. Another 22 million would suffer harassment, having their natural feeding, breeding, migration or other activities disrupted.

The fisheries service said the Navy's work would not necessarily result in injuries or death to marine mammals, provided the Navy follows safety guidelines. Among these are establishing marine mammal protection zones around each ship, using Navy observers to shut down sonar operations if marine mammals are seen in the area, avoiding the detonation of explosives near marine mammals and implementing a stranding response plan.

"These measures should minimize the potential for injury or death and significantly reduce the number of marine mammals exposed to levels of sound likely to cause temporary loss of hearing," the fisheries service said in a written statement.
Michael Jasny, senior policy analyst for the Natural Resources Defense Council, dismissed the report, saying the projections of harm, while bad enough, understate the likely impact on marine life.

"The Navy has estimated that its new activities would kill hundreds and injure thousands of marine mammals off the east coast," he said. "Reading the administration's response to this is like watching someone try to hide an elephant behind a shower curtain. When endangered species are at stake, 'Nothing here, folks' doesn't cut it."

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