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Plan to Harm Marine Life for Navy Draws Protest

WASHINGTON (CN) - Environmentalists blasted regulators for approving a proposed rule that will let the U.S. Navy harm more than 31 million marine mammals from 2014 to 2019.

Set to be published Thursday, the proposed National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) rule comes in response to the Navy's request to conduct testing and training exercises that will lead to the incidental injury or death of whales and dolphins.

The Natural Resources Defense Council said the plan covers the Atlantic coast, the Gulf of Mexico, and waters off of Southern California and Hawaii.

Ultimately the incidental take, as it is named in the regulation, will include 31 million marine mammals, an increase of 200 percent compared with the Navy's past take requests, the group said.

"We're talking about a staggering and unprecedented amount of harm to more than 40 species of marine mammals that should give any federal agency involved, be it the Navy or the National Marine Fisheries Service, pause," NRDC attorney Zak Smith said in a statement.

"NMFS has been charged by Congress to protect these mammals, not sanction their deaths," he added. "Giving the Navy the green light to harm marine mammals 31 million times is completely counter to NMFS mission and common sense."

Incidental take spans a wide range of harms, including destruction of habitat, physical injury and death.

The proposed rule will result in millions of instances of temporary and permanent hearing loss to whales and dolphins, "and nearly 350 deaths from Navy explosions, vessels that strike marine mammals, and sonar exercises," the NRDC said.

In an NRDC blog post, Smith complained that the Navy has just one strategy to minimize harm to marine mammals: using lookouts to spot the animals "and then limit the use of sonar when they get too close."

This approach is "demonstrably ineffective and inadequate," Smith wrote in the entry, dated Oct. 5, 2012.

"It's ineffective because, as the Navy admits, lookouts on Navy ships only detect about 9 percent of whales and dolphins in the best of conditions," he added. "It's inadequate because the Navy's own analysis shows that some of the most severe impacts, such as permanent hearing loss, will occur well beyond the Navy's 'too close' zone. How else then does the Navy propose that the harm from its activities can be limited? It doesn't. Its analysis and application to NMFS fail to present decision makers with any alternatives or mitigation measures that would appreciably reduce the harm to whales and dolphins."

More than 550,000 people have signed a petition at Signon.org to put an end to the "killing and harassment of marine mammals by navy sonar," the NRDC said.

The public has until March 11, 2013, to make comments on the rule.

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