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Friday, July 12, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Naval Training Plan Would Hurt Marine Life

SAN DIEGO (CN) - The California Coastal Commission has objected to a Navy offshore plan to deploy bombs and undersea sonar sound, amid wildlife concerns.

At a March 8 hearing, the commission issued a unanimous rejection of the Navy's Hawaii-Southern California Training and Testing Program off the Southern California coastline. Some environmentalists say the program will injure or kill millions of cetaceans over the next five years.

The commissioners reviewed the program under a provision of the federal Coastal Zone Management Act, which allows them to review whether the Navy's activities comply with protections for marine wildlife under the California's Coastal Act.

Arguing that its the program adhered to state law, the Navy submitted a consistency determination to the commission for the training exercises.

It intends to increase its training operations on the Southern California coastline and reportedly told the commissioners that the five-year program would kill 130 marine mammals and cause hearing loss in 1,600 mammals.

The commission and environmental groups dispute that claim as unrealistic.

Whale and Dolphin Watch says that low-frequency sonar rips tissue around the brains and ears of sea animals, wipes out their "ability to navigate and find food," and "leads to early and painful death." Among the hundreds of thousands of sea life affected are whales, dolphins, seals and otters, the group says.

Sonar sound "penetrates an animal's body when immersed in water," according to the group's website.

"In air, 99.97 percent of the acoustic energy is reflected from a body. In water, however, there is no reflection or reduction of energy because the body is mostly water. Essentially all of acoustic energy goes into a body immersed in water," the group says.

It says that this causes "tissue rupture and hemorrhage" not "adequately addressed" by the Navy.

A commission staff report found that the program would take place in offshore Navy range complexes, piers, ports, ship yards and naval operational areas in the ocean.

Under the program, the Navy would practice war scenarios, including mine, anti-submarine, and electronic warfare, the report noted.

The commission said it was ready to approve the program providing the Navy avoided sonar transmissions in certain "safety zones," and in "biologically significant areas" inhabited with blue and fin whales, gray whales and bottlenose dolphins.

It also set restrictions on sound levels during the night and times of low visibility. In addition to limiting vessel speeds, the commission also asked the Navy to create a contingency plan for explosives close to the shore.

Unless the Navy accedes to those conditions, commissioners said they would be left with little choice but to vote against the training program.

The National Resources Defense Counsel said the U.S. Navy's proposed program could "cause 8.8. million instances of harm and injury to marine mammals in Southern California."

"No one questions the Navy's need to train," NRDC marine mammal project director Michael Jasny said in an email. "A well-prepared and ready force is essential to the nation's security. But whales should not have to die for practice. Remarkably, the dramatic increase of injury has not triggered a corresponding effort on the Navy's part to identify better means of reducing harm. Commonsense mitigation techniques exist to allow the Navy to train effectively and reduce lethal harm to whales and dolphins, but they choose not to use these methods."

The National Resources Defense Counsel also said that the Navy's proposed program could "cause 8.8. million instances of harm and injury to marine mammals in Southern California," the group said in an email.

"For the next five years, beginning next January, the Navy estimates that it would kill 130 marine mammals outright, permanently deafen another 1,600, and significantly disrupt feeding, calving and other vital behaviors more than 8.8 million times."

The NRDC added that this marks a "1,300 percent increase" compared with previous training programs. Training activities would involve detonation of "more than 50,000 underwater explosives" packing "enough charge to sink a warship," it added.

"Each year, the Navy would run more than 10,000 hours of the same high-intensity military sonar that has killed and injured whales around the globe," the NRDC said.

The Navy could nevertheless still step up its activities.

California Coastal Commission spokesman Mark Delaplaine told Courthouse News in an email that it would put the conditions in writing and that Navy disagrees there are "four potential ways a dispute could be resolved."

He said the commission might take no more action, continue negotiations or "enter into non-binding mediation, either informally with the Office of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management, or formally w[ith the] secretary of Commerce.

"Either side could decide to challenge the other in court," he added.

U.S. Supreme Court precedent suggests the Navy might bat away any legal challenge, even if the commission takes action to impose the conditions.

In 2007, the commission and environmental groups sued the Navy for rejected similar measures.

The 9th Circuit issued an injunction, but the Supreme Court overturned after the Navy argued that its activities are "critical to the nation's own security."

Commissioner Jana Zimmer declined to comment or "speculate" on what action the commission will take if the Navy disagrees with the conditions.

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