WASHINGTON (CN) – The National Marine Fisheries Service plans to issue a five-year Letter of Authorization (LOA) to Elgin Air Force Base in Florida for the incidental harassment, or “take,” of six species of dolphins and whales that may be affected by weapons testing and training exercises, according to a recent proposed rule.
The Elgin “military readiness activities” involve Precision Strike Weapon (PSW) and Air-to-Surface (AS) gunnery missions. The PSW missions use two weapons, a Joint Air-to-Surface Stand-off Missile with an underwater detonation of approximately 300 lbs net explosive weight, and a small diameter bomb, with an approximate 96 lbs of net explosive weight. The AS gunnery missions create surface impacts of projectiles and small underwater detonations with 25-mm, 40-mm, and 105-mm gunnery rounds, the action noted. The PSW missions would use live shots and inert shots, and the AS missions would use a mix of “training rounds” and “full-up” rounds.
To grant LOAs, the NMFS must determine that the effects on the marine mammals will be “negligible” and will not have an “unmitigable” adverse impact on the species for subsistence use.
The agency says “there are no relevant subsistence uses of marine mammals implicated by this action,” and further maintains “there is no evidence that planned activities could result in serious injury or mortality within the specified geographic area for the requested authorization,” according to the proposed rule.
Regarding military readiness activities, the Marine Mammal Protection Act defines take or “harassment” as “(i) Any act that injures or has the significant potential to injure a marine mammal or marine mammal stock in the wild (Level A harassment); or (ii) any act that disturbs or is likely to disturb a marine mammal or marine mammal stock in the wild by causing disruption of natural behavioral patterns, including, but not limited to, migration, surfacing, nursing, breeding, feeding, or behavioral patterns are abandoned or significantly altered (Level B harassment).”
“These LOAs, if approved, would authorize the take, by Level A (physiological) and Level B (behavioral) harassment, of Atlantic bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus) and Atlantic spotted dolphin (Stenella frontalis) incidental to PSW testing and training activities. Takes of dwarf sperm whale (Kogia simus), pygmy sperm whale (K. breviceps), Atlantic bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus), Atlantic spotted dolphin (Stenella frontalis), pan tropical spotted dolphin (S. attenuate), and spinner dolphin (S. longirostris) by Level B harassment would also be authorized incidental to AS gunnery testing and training operations,” the proposed rule says.
The military operations could potentially harm marine mammals by exposing them to “impulsive noise and pressure waves generated by ordnance detonation at or near the surface of the water,” according to the proposed rule.
The agency admits that “because the few available studies show wide variation in response to underwater sound, it is difficult to quantify exactly how sound from PSW and AS gunnery missions would affect marine mammals.”
Approximately 21 marine mammal species are found near the Eglin Gulf Test and Training Range in the Gulf of Mexico, but the species most likely to be affected by the testing activities are the Atlantic bottlenose dolphin, Atlantic spotted dolphin, pantropical spotted dolphin, spinner dolphin, and dwarf and pygmy sperm whales.
The NMFS requests comments and information on its proposal by June 6, 2013.
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