WASHINGTON (CN) - The National Marine Fisheries Service has authorized harm to marine mammals resulting from U.S. Navy training exercises in the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico over the next five years.
The action comes less than two weeks after a U.S. District Court set an August 2014 deadline for the NMFS to ensure that the Navy's activities in the Pacific comply with Endangered Species Act requirements.
The Nov. 26 ruling stems from the court's September finding that the NMFS is "at fault for green-lighting Navy training based on incomplete and outdated science," according to a Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) press release. The CBD partnered with the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and other environmental and tribal groups to bring the suit.
No matter where the military readiness activities take place, the effects on marine mammals are the same.
In the NRDC's response to the NMFS' Atlantic/Gulf proposed rule earlier this year, the group noted that "the estimated level of harm is 200 percent greater than previously requested permits to 'take' marine mammals." The estimated take levels remained unchanged in the final action.
"Take," or harm, ranges from instances of marine mammals abandoning their habitat, temporary and permanent hearing loss, other permanent injury, and death. The harm results from explosions, vessel strikes and use of sonar.
The harm is classified as either Level A or Level B harassment. Level A applies to actions that cause or have a significant potential to cause injuries and death. Level B harassment signifies actions that disrupt natural behavior patterns such as migration, breeding, feeding or sheltering such that the behaviors are abandoned or significantly altered, according to the action.
The Navy requested authorization to take 42 species by Level B harassment and 32 species by Level A harassment. The military activities are projected to cause millions of Level B impacts, thousands of Level A injuries and more than 100 deaths over the five year period, according to the action.
"The Navy's Atlantic Fleet activities account for two-thirds of all injuries (nearly 22 million over five years) with Hawaii - Southern California activities accounting for a third of all injuries (about 9.5 million over five years)," the NRDC said.
The NMFS said in its statement that "exposure to sonar and explosives in certain circumstances has been associated with the stranding of some marine mammals, and some injury or death may occur despite the best efforts of the Navy," while claiming that "the effects of these Navy operations would have a negligible impact on the overall species or stocks involved" if the Navy properly uses mitigation measures.
"The Navy's mid-frequency sonar has been implicated in mass strandings of marine mammals in, among other places, the Bahamas, Greece, the Canary Islands and Spain. In 2004, during war games near Hawaii, the Navy's sonar was implicated in a mass stranding of as many as 200 melon-headed whales in Hanalei Bay," the CBD maintained.
The final rule does include a requirement that the Navy and the NMFS meet on a yearly basis to "discuss new science, Navy research and development, and Navy monitoring results to determine if modifications to mitigation or monitoring measures are appropriate," the agency said.
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