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U.S. Navy to Increase Sonar Training and Underwater Detonations Despite Injury to Marine Mammals

Natural Resources Defense Council

The U.S. Navy has indicated that it intends to disregard the California Coastal Commission’s (CCC) recommendations to mitigate the harmful effects of Navy sonar and offshore training exercises on the state’s marine mammals. In a letter dated July 31, the Navy responded to the CCC’s March objection, which concluded that the Navy’s planned training and testing activities in Southern California would not be consistent with California coastal law.

The Navy’s plans would allow a radical increase in sonar training and underwater detonations off Southern California, beginning in January 2014. While the Navy says it is open to negotiation, it refuses in its letter to abide by any of the state’s recommended mitigation measures, such as avoiding training in globally important foraging habitat for the endangered blue whale.

The Navy’s review comes in the wake of several new studies showing that its Southern California activities are harming marine mammal species, such as blue whales and beaked whales, far more than was previously known.

“The Navy’s plan to dramatically increase its sonar training and underwater detonations off the Southern California coast shouldn’t come at the expense of the state’s marine life," said Michael Jasny, Natural Resources Defense Council’s marine mammal project director. "Its proposal blatantly disregards new science showing that current training levels could already be devastating California’s beaked whale populations and preventing endangered blue whales from recovering from near-extinction."

"The Coastal Commission has offered reasonable measures that take into account the Navy’s need for flexibility while affording greater protection to vulnerable species," Jasny continues. "The Navy’s refusal to adopt any of these measures puts California’s marine life in jeopardy.”

Beginning next January, the Navy plans to dramatically increase sonar training and underwater detonations off of Southern California over the next five years. The Navy estimates that it would kill 130 marine mammals outright, permanently deafen another 1,600, and significantly disrupt feeding, calving and other vital behaviors more than 8.8 million times in the process. Compared with its previous exercises in the region, these numbers represent a 1,300 percent increase.

Each year, the Navy would run more than 10,000 hours of the same high-intensity military sonar that has killed and injured whales around the globe. In addition, the Navy would detonate more than 50,000 underwater explosives off the Southern California coast. Hundreds of these explosives would pack enough charge to sink a warship, which is exactly what they’re used for.

For some species, like the magnificent gray whales that migrate up and down our coast, the incidence of harm is several times the size of their entire populations. The most vulnerable marine mammals are the beaked whales, a family of species that are considered acutely sensitive to Navy sonar, with documented injury and death. A government study published earlier this year found that beaked whale populations have indeed declined substantially in the California current over the past 20 years, and suggests that the Navy’s range may have become a population sink, making it difficult for them to breed or bring their calves to maturity.

Another Southern California study found that the Navy’s frequent sonar training poses significant risks to the recovery of endangered blue whales, whose numbers have not rebounded in the Pacific since commercial whaling was banned more than 25 years ago.

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