The U.S. Navy rejected a plea from the California Coastal Commission that it scale back a five-year program of sonar testing, planned to begin in January, that uses explosives in areas teeming with whales and other vulnerable undersea creatures.
The Navy says its plan to detonate 50,000 explosions during more than 10,000 hours of high-intensity sonar testing off the Southern California coast will cause the deaths of only 130 marine animals and impair the hearing of perhaps another 1,600. The Navy characterized the impact as “negligible.”
The commission asked in March that the Navy reduce the 120,000-square-mile testing area because of the threat to endangered blue and fin whales, beaked whales and migrating gray whales. The National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) estimated that the Navy testing, which will also occur on the East Coast, will affect 33 million marine animals, many of them endangered, in some fashion.
The animals may just be disturbed, rather than injured or killed, but loud oceans blasts, which are magnified by the water, are known to have significant effects on an animal’s internal navigation system. Some estimates say as many as 5 million marine mammals may suffer from ruptured eardrums and temporary hearing loss.
“We’re talking about a staggering and unprecedented amount of harm to more than 40 species of marine mammals that should give any federal agency involved, be it the Navy or the National Marine Fisheries Service, pause,” Zak Smith, an attorney with NRDC’s marine mammal project, said after the Navy publicized its plans in January. The estimated level of harm is 200% greater than previously requested permits, the NRDC said.
The commission sought the creation of safety zones to protect marine sanctuaries and protected areas, plus areas where whales are known to pass through during migration seasons. Although the Navy rejected the commission suggestions, there will be continued negotiations over what, if any, mitigation measures can be used.
If talks fail, the commission can sue. But the Navy has a 2008 U.S. Supreme Court decision, which said military considerations “strongly” outweighed environmental concerns, on its side. The state failed to stop Navy testing in 2007 and 2009.
The Navy argues that the tests are necessary to maintain coastal defenses, particularly against submarine incursions.