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Navy to limit sonar, explosions in more areas off East Coast to protect endangered whales

The USS Illinois conducts sea trials off Groton, Conn., in August 2016.

U.S. NAVY PHOTO COURTESY OF GENERAL DYNAMICS ELECTRIC BOAT

By BROCK VERGAKIS | The Virginian-Pilot | Published: November 1, 2018

NORFOLK, Va. (Tribune News Service) — The Navy is expanding the area it limits the use of sonar and explosives off the East Coast as part of an effort to help protect the endangered North Atlantic right whale.

The whales were nearly hunted into extinction by the 1890s and today there are only about 450 left, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service.

While the biggest modern day threats to the whales are entanglement in fishing gear and direct strikes from vessels, underwater noise pollution can interfere with their communication and affect their behavior, the fisheries service said.

The large black whales travel between New England in the warm months to feed and mate and south to Florida to have their offspring in winter. They're recognizable by their lack of a dorsal fin, broad tails and raised patches of rough skin on their heads. Occasionally, they roam in the same areas that submarines, warships and helicopters that use sonar or deploy torpedoes or other explosives train and operate in.

To comply with federal laws protecting marine mammals and endangered species, the Navy works with the fisheries service to reduce its impacts through mitigation areas. In the northeast, the mitigation area is expanding to include the right whale's entire critical habitat area to limit the use of sonar and explosives.

"For validated national security reasons we can still use those systems up there, but other than that we would work to not go there if we don't have to," said Jene Nissen, acoustic policy manager for Norfolk-based Fleet Forces Command.

The Navy also has committed to not conducting shock trials on ships near its Jacksonville, Fla., operating area during calving season from Nov. 15 through April 15. Shock trials are used to show a new ship's ability to withstand nearby underwater explosions.

The Navy also will broadcast awareness messages to its ships giving the locations of spotted right whales so they can reduce vessel strikes and operate at lower speeds during certain seasons when there have been reports of nearby whales. Under new regulations that will take effect in mid-November, the Navy is expanding its mitigation in the southeast about 50 nautical miles along the coast of northern Georgia from the shoreline out to 12 nautical miles.

Nissen said most training, including that by ships based in Hampton Roads, already occurs farther out to sea than the mitigation areas. The Jacksonville operating area extends 100 miles off the coast, he said.

But he said the only sonar that would be used in the expanded area where right whales are most likely to be found is for mine warfare exercises and for navigation training to prepare for the possibility of using sonar during periods of low visibility, such as approaching a port.

"Mitigation to limit the use of active sonar to the maximum extent practicable and not use certain explosive and non-explosive munitions will help the Navy further avoid or reduce potential impacts on North Atlantic right whales year-round in their most important feeding areas, a mating area, and the northern portion of their migration habitat," the Navy's environmental impact statement says.

Separately, the Navy also has agreed to not use explosives in certain parts of the Gulf of Mexico except during mine warfare training in order to protect the Bryde's whale. There are less than 100 of that species in the Gulf of Mexico, according to the fisheries service.

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