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Air Force bombing proposal in Hawaii violates sea mammal act, group says

By WILLIAM COLE | The Honolulu Star-Advertiser (Tribune News Service) | Published: June 11, 2017

Environmental law group Earthjustice has put the National Marine Fisheries Serv­ice on notice that proposed federal regulations over Air Force bombing practice off Kauai would violate the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

“The testing, which involves hundreds of missiles and bombs detonating in the ocean over the next five years, could harm a number of whale and dolphin species, including endangered sei whales, humpback whales, dwarf sperm whales, pygmy sperm whales, bottlenose dolphins and striped dolphins,” Earthjustice said in a release.

The Air Force said it needs the annual at-sea training at Kauai’s Pacific Missile Range Facility due to unspecified national security threats that likely revolve around China, with increased air-to-surface exercises directed by the Pentagon.

Monday was the last day to comment on the Fisheries Service “proposed rule” for the Air Force training, which would be conducted between Aug. 23 of this year and Aug. 22, 2022.

The “Long Range Strike Weapons System Evaluation Program” seeks to use aircraft including B-1, B-2 and B-52 bombers, and F-15, F-16, F-22 and F-35 fighters that would release over water a range of weapons including joint air-to-surface standoff missiles with a 1,000-pound warhead and range of more than 230 miles; 250-pound small-diameter bombs; and high-speed anti-radiation missiles.

Prior to participating in such a live-fire exercise, most pilots and weapons system officers will have used only simulations of the ordnance, the Air Force said.

Without mitigation efforts, marine mammals potentially affected by air-to-surface activities in the Barking Sands Underwater Range Extension of the Pacific Missile Range Facility include 16 species of whales and dolphins, the Air Force said.

The number of marine mammals potentially exposed to injurious “Level A” harassment, including hearing loss and other harm, is approximated at 36 animals. A maximum of approximately 382 animals could potentially be exposed to noninjurious, temporary “Level B” harassment. No mortality is expected.

Among the steps the Air Force has agreed to take is monitoring for marine mammals through pre-mission aerial visual surveys. If any dead or injured marine mammals are observed, the bombing operations must cease.

The Fisheries Service said in a May 5 filing that it had “preliminarily determined that the proposed mitigation measures, including visual aerial surveys and mission delays if protected species are observed in the impact area, provide the means of effecting the least practicable adverse impact on marine mammal species.”

However, proposed aerial surveying “falls far short of satisfying Congress’s command” to minimize adverse impact, Honolulu-based Earthjustice attorney David Henkin said in a June 5 letter to the Fisheries Service.

Aircraft scanning the ocean for marine mammals “are likely to miss far more animals than they will find,” Henkin said. Earthjustice and other environmental organizations also criticize the Fisheries Service for not requiring the use of passive acoustic monitoring hydrophones that are already in place off Kauai to carry out real-time checks for marine animals during the training.

The Navy, brought in to consult on the issue, “described the constraints of using (the hydrophones) as a real-time mitigation tool due to the limitations of the current technology,” the Fisheries Service said.

That includes limitations on the ability to detect, classify and estimate locations of marine mammals around the equipment, the Fisheries Service said, adding it will require hydrophone use to collect data “to be analyzed (later) as funding allows.”

Contrary to the assertion of hydrophone limitations, the Marine Mammal Commission maintains that the Navy “is quite adept at detecting, classifying and localizing individual marine mammals” at the Pacific Missile Range Facility.

“We readily admit the hydrophone array will miss some animals. But so will the flyovers. So you need to do both,” Henkin said.

Each long-range strike mission set will occur over a maximum of five consecutive days a year, the Air Force said. About 110 bombs would be released each time. The impact area is approximately 50 miles off Kauai in waters 15,240 feet deep.

The Fisheries Service issued a marine mammal “incidental harassment authorization” for very limited Air Force at-sea bombing off Kauai in 2016.

“We’re not saying that the Air Force shouldn’t train,” Henkin said. “We’re just saying when they do this training, they should do the best they can to avoid unnecessarily hurting marine mammals.”

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