The Navy has requested an increase on the capped number of marine mammals it is allowed to unintentionally harm during Pacific training after the service’s vessels struck a number of whales in recent years off the coast of Southern California.
The sea service’s proposal seeks to raise the limit of approved whale-related incidents, set in a government agreement, before an authorization period ends in December 2025, according to a public notice posted to the Federal Register last month.
With the public comment period on the proposal closing Friday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration told Military Times it anticipates making a decision on whether to finalize the suggested update in the spring of next year.
And while the Navy sees its request as justified, environmental groups are not happy.
“The Navy’s main response to hitting and killing whales is to ask for permission to harm more whales. It’s nonsensical and extremely disappointing,” Kristen Monsell, an attorney with the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity, told Military Times via email.
The number of accidental hurtful actions permitted against whales is currently set at three through 2025. But with the service already reaching that number between 2021 and 2023, officials from the Navy’s Pacific Fleet and Navy System Commands are looking to raise the ceiling to five unintentional “takes,” an action the Marine Mammal Protection Act defines as “to harass, hunt, capture, or kill, or attempt to harass, hunt, capture, or kill any marine mammal.”
The Navy struck two whales during summer 2021 off the coast of San Diego, California. Earlier this year, one of the service’s ships struck what it determined was either a fin whale or sei whale.
Those events followed an incident in May 2021, during which an Australian Navy ship, the destroyer HMAS Sydney, struck and killed a mother fin whale and her calf as it approached the naval base in San Diego ahead of a U.S. Navy-led exercise. Although that fatal episode did not count toward the U.S. Navy’s sanctioned limit of “incidental takes,” it did encourage the service to review its authorized number.
“The U.S. Navy stands by its probability of strike analysis explained in the proposed rule,” a spokesperson from U.S. Pacific Fleet told Military Times.
The spokesperson added that the Navy submitted its request after a revised analysis of future incident probability and “as a cautionary acknowledgement that some probability of ship strike, although low, could still occur” before its permit period for vessel strikes within the Hawaii and Southern California training and testing area ends.
Prior to 2021, the only U.S. Navy incidents since 2009 involving the marine mammals were two recorded vessel strikes on endangered fin whales.
The spokesperson for U.S. Pacific Fleet said the Navy takes many steps to ensure the protection of marine mammals, including posting trained lookouts on ships, implementing annual marine species awareness training for operational units and utilizing notification procedures in areas with high overlap of whales and Navy vessel traffic.
“If a ship spots a group of whales, other ships in the immediate area get notified to be especially vigilant,” the spokesperson said.
But environmental groups remain concerned over the Navy’s interactions with the marine mammals.
“We’re pretty disappointed with the Navy’s decision,” Shalin Gala, the vice president of International Laboratory Methods at the nonprofit People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, told Military Times.
“I do think it’s likely the Navy will have another incident before 2025,” Monsell added. “Without more meaningful mitigation, we’ll only see more dead whales. That the Navy is asking for permission to kill more shows it has little faith in the efficacy of existing requirements.”
Jonathan is a staff writer and editor of the Early Bird Brief newsletter for Military Times. Follow him on Twitter @lehrfeld_media