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Training plans could face legal battle over sea-life safety

Apr. 5, 2013 - 09:38AM   |  
Environmental advocates say the Navy's sonar use in its offshore training facilities could harm marine mammals. The Navy says its training plans will have "negligible effects on marine mammal populations."
Environmental advocates say the Navy's sonar use in its offshore training facilities could harm marine mammals. The Navy says its training plans will have "negligible effects on marine mammal populations." (Chuck Beckley / AP)
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The Navy has run into more static in its quest to renew its federal permits so it can operate ships, submarines and aircraft and test existing and new weapons systems at its offshore ranges.

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The Navy has run into more static in its quest to renew its federal permits so it can operate ships, submarines and aircraft and test existing and new weapons systems at its offshore ranges.

The Navy wants federal regulators to renew the five-year permits required by the Marine Mammal Protection Act so it can operate in the Atlantic Fleet Training and Testing Area and range complexes off Southern California and Hawaii starting in January.

Each range complex is undergoing the lengthy environmental impact statement federal review process. But these are drawing fire from environmental groups opposed to the use of sonar and other military operations in sensitive marine habitats.

A California state commission wants to put the brakes on the plan in the Pacific. On March 8, the California Coastal Commission unanimously rejected its own staff’s conditional support of the Navy’s plan for the Hawaii-Southern California training areas, arguing it doesn’t believe the Navy’s conclusions are supported by evidence. The official findings — released March 21 and expected to be approved April 10 — could set the stage for a legal showdown in federal court if the Navy moves ahead with training.

Environmental groups, some who previously have sued to block at-sea training and testing, continue to oppose expanded training and operations. “The Navy makes no effort to identify or avoid areas of biologically important habitat to marine species, and the resulting toll on California coastal resources is intolerable,” the San Francisco-based National Research Defense Council wrote to the commission. It criticized the Navy’s use of shipboard lookouts and its ability to detect beaked whales, for example.

But the Navy seems poised to fight back.

In a March 26 post on the Navy’s official online blog, Rear Adm. Kevin Slates argued “some of the information in those EISs has been misrepresented and exaggerated. Lost in the discussion during a recent meeting of the California Coastal Commission is this fact: the best available science — and the Navy’s long track record of conducting similar training and testing — indicate our proposed activities will continue to have negligible effects on marine mammal populations.”

Slates, the director of the Navy’s energy and environmental readiness division, wrote that animals aren’t necessarily harmed by sonar. Moreover, he argued, the Navy’s own predictions of impact on marine mammals are “overestimates” calculated by scientific models, and those estimates don’t account for protective mitigation measures, such as passive sonar, buffer zones and trained lookouts, during sonar and explosives testing.

“The experts at [National Marine Fisheries Service] will only issue permits if they are confident our proposed activities will have a negligible impact on marine life,” he wrote, “and that is exactly what NMFS has determined in its proposed final rule for the Hawaii-Southern California and Atlantic Coast/Gulf of Mexico areas.”

Alex Stone, Pacific Fleet’s project manager heading the environmental reviews, made the Navy’s case before the California commission. Stone said the Navy’s mitigation measures, which are being done in the Pacific and Atlantic, help reduce harm to marine life and “are effective in all areas.”

“We think they strike that balance” with naval training, he said. Marine mammals are impacted in “very rare cases... and we see no impact on the sonar activities.” That includes the busy undersea ranges around San Clemente Island west of San Diego that teem with marine life.

Stone acknowledged the dearth of research into how marine mammals are impacted by military activities and other disturbances at sea. Their reaction to sonar and sound, he said, “is something that is not well known.” The Navy continues to study marine mammals and naval operations, he added, and train shipboard crews to avoid marine mammals, even in low-visibility conditions at sea.

Tools to help

Even in the vast oceans, compared to the more crowded or shallower areas with kelp beds and other sources that provide feeding or protected breeding areas, ships and other vessels risk close calls with marine life.

The Navy counts on mitigation measures and procedures, like turning active sonar down or off, changing course or halting live-fire training, to reduce impact and harm to marine mammals. It uses passive sonar to help spot the animals and relies on sailors serving as lookouts and helicopter crews to spot dolphin pods or porpoises and whales that are near the ship or in transit corridors.

In late March, Capt. John Clausen, commander of the San Diego-based cruiser Princeton, joined crew members for Marine Species Awareness Training, developed by the National Marine Fisheries Service and geared for bridge watch teams and aircrews as well as sonar technicians.

“That allows them ... to recognize behavior and report it,” Clausen said.

Before each training event or exercise, such as using explosives or running sonar, a ship runs through Protective Measures Assessment Protocols. “It’s totally integrated with all the other ways they do training,” Stone said. Crews don’t have time to read 1,000 pages of environmental reports and decipher federal and state laws, he said, but “they can go on a computer... and it’ll tell them all the requirements.”

Using information such as a ship’s location and type of exercise, the software tool helps map out any potential environmental risks such as sensitive marine habitats. It also incorporates environmental regulations and other information to help the ship conduct its training or make adjustments as needed to avoid marine species in the area where they are training and operating. “It will advise us of any special conditions,” Clausen said.

Marine mammals heavily populate some offshore areas, including off San Clemente Island and around Hawaii, and at certain times of the year see more due to breeding and migration. “We have lookouts at all times that are accustomed to looking for things in the water, including marine mammals,” Stone said. In some areas, some “are especially dedicated to looking for marine mammals.”

It’s doesn’t complicate bridge watching, he said, adding, “Quite frankly, that’s ‘101’ stuff.”

Clausen, who has trained and operated off the marine life-rich Hawaiian islands, said it’s not unusual for ships to spot marine mammals at sea, whether the telltale blowhole of a whale, porpoises zipping through the waves or surface ripples of large schools of fish that can draw larger mammals craving food. Often, he will have two or three enlisted sailors on lookout duty on the weather decks, and two or three officers on the bridge — it sits 65 feet above the water, providing a wide view — who are also scanning the horizon and waters around the ship. In dense fog and in darkness, the ship won’t do live-fire events, he said, and he usually will have extra lookouts in low-visibility conditions.

Sometimes, “we’ve had to attenuate the [sonar] power we are putting out, when we are active,” he said, “and hold off firing [.50-cal guns] when we see some marine mammals in the area.”

But Clausen hasn’t seen a degradation in training his crew, which deployed Wednesday as part of the Nimitz Carrier Strike Group. “It’s the normal way of doing business,” he said. “With the measures that are in place, I’m confident we are able to achieve and maintain our training goals.”

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