To a packed meeting room on Friday in San Diego, the California Coastal Commission voted unanimously to reject the US Navy’s sonar training program scheduled off Southern California because of harm to endangered blue whales, other marine mammals and sea life.
The Commissioners ruled that the Navy had insufficient information to support its claims that the explosives and sonar training program would have negligible effect on marine mammals. Scheduled to proceed in January, Coastal staff had recommended that the Commission require more protections to the wildlife before authorizing it.
Estimating that their proposed training program would kill 130 marine mammals and cause hearing loss in 1,600 over five years, the Navy rep argued to the Commission that the Navy was set against any additional conditions that they said would reduce the realism or scope of the training. Navy rep Alex Stone stated that the program has enough protections for the wild sea life. Stone directs the program.
The scope of the Navy’s testing area includes 120,000 nautical square miles off the Southern California coast, including a “corridor” between California and Hawaii.
Michael Jasny with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said, “We think these are underestimates.” The Defense Council joined several dozen other organizations opposed to the Navy program. They argue that the Navy needs to avoid important habitat for vulnerable species, including endangered blue and fin whales, beaked whales, and migrating gray whales.
The environmentalists also want to require the Navy to not use sonar training and underwater detonations at night, when marine mammals are extremely hard to detect. In addition, they want the Navy to be required to use its own acoustic monitoring network to help detect marine mammals. Plus, they also requested that the Navy ships slow to 10 knots from May through October where baleen whales are in order to avoid hitting them.
Commission staff had recommended that Commission authorization be contingent on a number of conditions, including the requirement that military program carve out safety zones that would guarantee no high-intensity sonar activity near marine sanctuaries and protected areas and in spots that experience a high concentration of blue, fin and gray whales seasonally. Staff stated that a kilometer from shore should also be off-limits to protect bottlenose dolphins.
Scientists say there is still much to be learned about how much sonar activity affects marine animals. Studies have shown some species such as beaked whales may be adversely affected by some forms.
The Associated Press reported:
The panel and the Navy could now seek mediation to iron out their differences — or the Navy could simply choose to proceed with the training, as it did in 2007 and 2009. That probably would prompt the commission to sue in an effort to block the program, as it has in the past.
The commission set out similar conditions to the Navy in 2007 and 2009, but the Navy refused to accept them both times.
The commission sued the Navy over the matter, leading to a preliminary injunction in 2008, though then-President George W. Bush gave an exemption for the training. The U.S. Supreme Court later overturned the lower court’s decision.