The U.S. Navy decided this week it would go ahead with underwater explosions and ear-piercing sonar in the Olympic National Marine Sanctuary despite protests by environmentalists the training exercises would hurt orcas and other imperiled marine creatures.
Curiously, the decision has yet to prompt any news coverage that I can find. And yet we're at a crucial juncture because the National Marine Fisheries Services is finalizing its proposed conditions for allowing the Navy to go forward with beefed-up training efforts in its Northwest Training Range Complex.
Earlier this month a bunch of environmental groups led by the Natural Resources Defense Council appealed to Northwestherner Jane Lubchenco, head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (and therefore NMFS), not to alllow the Navy to harm orcas, whales, and other marine creatures.
Among their comments to Lubchenco:
In this regard, a 2008 NOAA report specifically identified both military activities and underwater noise pollution as two of several emerging threats to the Olympic Coast NMS. … In particular, it found that "an increase in Navy activity or areas of operation, if not properly controlled, could have potential to disturb the seabed, introduce pollutants associated with test systems, and produce sound energy that could negatively alter the acoustic environment within the sanctuary."
Fortunately for those of us trying to go back and figure out what's gone on in this process, Leah Leach of the Peninsula Daily News in Port Angeles wrote an advance
of this week's decision by the Navy.
The Navy told Leach the plan would increase the number of exercises using sonar from 24 to 26 per year, and that the number of hours the sonar would be deployed would be boosted from 24 to 36.
The Navy's training range extends 250 miles off the coasts of Washington, Oregon and California, and also includes some inland waters around Hood Canal and Whibey Island.. The enviros are asking that special rules be employed in less than 3 percent of the 122,000-square-nautical-mile training range.
It's been a while since we last checked in
on this sonar-and-whales controversy, but there were pretty clearly some effects
when a Navy ship deployed its mid-frequency sonar near the San Juan Islands a few years ago, causing a mike whale to swim away in a panic and orcas and Dall's porpoises to apparently try to shield themselves from the screechy sound.
It's become well-known in the last decade that sonar can harm
and even kill
Despite that, enviros have had a hard time fighting off Navy plans to test sonar in waters where orcas, whales and other marine mammals with sensitive hearing are known to swim.
Navy spokeswoman Sheila Murray told Leach that in the marine sanctuary, most of the training exercises would involve airplanes, not naval vessels:
"There's not really a lot that happens in the water in the sanctuary."
If that's so, why doesn't the Navy agree to just not do the sonar and underwater explosions in the sanctuary?
The explosions and sonar have been judged to be harmful to marine creatures — a "take" under the Endangererd Species Act and Marine Mammal Protection Act — but not so bad that they would cause any species to go extinct.
— Robert McClure