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Test Area Increases, With Possible Harm to Whales

WASHINGTON (CN) - The National Marine Fisheries Service plans to issue another five year marine mammal harm authorization for U.S. Navy sonar and ordnance testing in the Marianas, according to an agency proposal. The Navy's request to continue military readiness activities includes an expansion of the testing area and an increase in the expected number of exercises and ordnance over previous authorizations.

The Mariana Islands Training and Testing study area includes the existing Mariana Islands Range Complex and surrounding seas and a transit corridor between the Mariana Islands and the Navy's Hawaii Range Complex.

The Navy requested authorization for the incidental harm to 26 species of marine mammals from exposure to sonar, underwater detonations and ship strikes.

Incidental harm to the marine mammals, many of which are protected under the Endangered Species Act and/or the Marine Mammal Protection Act, is split into categories: Level B harassment, Level A harassment or death. Level B harassment includes disturbance of the animals that can lead to disruption of migration, or alterations in surfacing, nursing, breeding, feeding or sheltering behavior. Level A harassment includes significant injury of the animal, according to the action.

The NMFS maintains in its press release that "the proposed authorization allows for a small number of incidental mortalities to marine mammals from sonar, as well as vessel strikes and explosions," and that "it does not necessarily expect the exercises to result in serious injury or death to marine mammals."

Yet in the proposed authorization, the agency notes that the death of up to 15 whales would be allowed, as well as up to 280 Level A serious injuries and up to 409,530 Level B harassments over the five year period.

The recent proposed authorization comes in the wake of a November 2013 court ruling mandating that protections for whales and dolphins from Navy sonar and testing in the Pacific Northwest would go into effect in August 2013. The suit was filed by Earthjustice on behalf of the InterTribal Sinkyone Wilderness Council, the Center for Biological Diversity, Friends of the Earth, Friends of the San Juans, and the Natural Resources Defense Council. That ruling only applies to the coastal areas off northern California up to the Canadian border.

The ruling noted that the NMFS was at fault for "green lighting Navy training based on incomplete and outdated science," according to a Friends of the Earth press release. "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 Hawai'i, the Navy's sonar was implicated in a mass stranding of up to 200 melon-headed whales in Hanalei Bay. In 2003, the USS Shoup, operating in Washington's Haro Strait, exposed a group of endangered Southern Resident killer whales to mid-frequency sonar, causing the animals to stop feeding and attempt to flee the sound. Even when sonar use does not result in these or other kinds of physical injury, it can disrupt feeding, migration, and breeding or drive whales from areas vital to their survival," the statement noted.

"Active sonar systems produce intense sound waves that sweep the ocean like a floodlight, revealing objects in their path. Some systems operate at more than 235 decibels, producing sound waves that can travel across tens or even hundreds of miles of ocean. During testing off the California coast, noise from the Navy's main low-frequency sonar system was detected across the breadth of the northern Pacific Ocean. By the Navy's own estimates, even 300 miles from the source, these sonic waves can retain an intensity of 140 decibels, a hundred times more intense than the level known to alter the behavior of large whales," according to the National Resources Defense Council.

Comments and information on the proposed rule are due by May 5, 2014.

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