War Over The Whales: The Navy insists underwater warfare range won’t hurt rare right whales off Florida coast

Miami Herald September 10, 2009 By Curtis Morgan Every winter endangered North Atlantic right whales migrate to warm, shallow waters to give birth and nurse their young. That’s right next to where the U.S. Navy wants to conduct antisubmarine training. Florida isn’t known for whale watching, but every winter the coastline offers a haven for […]
Miami Herald September 10, 2009 By Curtis Morgan Every winter endangered North Atlantic right whales migrate to warm, shallow waters to give birth and nurse their young. That’s right next to where the U.S. Navy wants to conduct antisubmarine training. Florida isn’t known for whale watching, but every winter the coastline offers a haven for endangered North Atlantic right whales. They migrate to warm, shallow waters to give birth and nurse little — relatively speaking — one-ton bundles of blubber. That’s right next to where the U.S. Navy wants to conduct antisubmarine training. The Navy has selected a site bordering a federally protected whale nursery stretching from Savannah to Sebastian for an undersea warfare range, where ships, submarines and aircraft outfitted with powerful sonar can practice hunting subs. Citing voluminous studies, the Navy concluded that training 58 miles off Jacksonville would rarely, and barely, disturb right whales. Environmentalists say the Navy has soft-pedaled risks from the 500-square-mile range. Ship strikes already rank as the top right whale killer. The Navy also intends to heavily employ sonar that can disrupt feeding and communication, cause hearing damage and — in extreme cases — trigger mass strandings such as one in the Bahamas that killed six beaked whales in 2000. “It’s one of the worst possible places,” said Catherine Wannamaker, an attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, one of 21 groups that contested the choice. “It’s right next to the calving grounds for one of the rarest whales in the world.” The groups contend that the range poses a disruptive, potentially deadly threat to a whale population numbering no more than 400 — and that’s after producing 39 calves last year, the most in decades. Florida and Georgia environmental regulators have raised similar concerns. Navy is moving ahead because Florida’s location and logistics beat sites off South Carolina, North Carolina and Maryland. Jacksonville boasts a seaport, air base and submarine base across the St. Mary’s River in King’s Bay, Ga. The Navy already has a deep-water sonar range in the Bahamas, but Julie Ripley, the Navy’s environmental spokeswoman, said the shallow sea floor and busy shipping lanes off northeast Florida provide a real-world test for sonar operators who must pinpoint a new generation of stealthier subs. Environmentalists, who have been battling the Navy for years over sonar, argue that it’s the whales that are perishable. Though there are signs of slow recovery, scientists consider their future precarious. The whales take a decade to hit sexual maturity. Females produce one calf a year, so losing one prematurely can set back recovery. Ship strikes are such a serious concern — 22 whales were hit between 1999 and 2006, with 13 confirmed deaths — that the fisheries service last year imposed seasonal zones limiting large vessels to 10 knots in whale habitat. The Navy — involved in roughly one-sixth of 134 documented strikes over 60 years — was exempted. Factoring in total sea hours, the service calculated the chance of any Navy ship hitting a whale in any year at .0000472 percent. The chances of not doing it: 99.99 percent. While whales have been spotted 60 miles out where the range is planned, past surveys — which environmentalists consider inadequate — suggest that most swim relatively close to shore, some 30 miles from where the Navy plans to train. The Navy, which adopted whale-avoidance policies in 2002, also has proposed more precautions during calving season — posted lookouts, daytime training and exercising “extreme caution” in ship speed and sonar power. But environmentalists remain skeptical, pointing to a series of strikes that have killed whales since 2000, including six pregnant females. Then there is the complex question of sonar. For the Navy, it’s critical protection for military vessels and shipping lanes — particularly mid-frequency active systems that emit “pings” of powerful sound, measuring echoes to identify and track targets. There is no dispute that active sonar can disturb whales and dolphins. They rely on echolocation, their own internal sonar, to navigate and hunt, and use an array of calls or “songs” to communicate. But research — much of it bankrolled by $20 million a year from the Navy — shows widely varying impacts, depending on species and sonar levels. Animals can leave an area, possibly under stress, or abandon feeding or breeding. Some studies indicate that repeated exposure can cause temporary hearing loss. In the worst cases, fleeing whales and dolphins beach in mass, often fatal, strandings. The Navy, in a 2001 study after 17 whales and a dolphin beached in the Bahamas, acknowledged that its mid-frequency sonar played a role, but also pointed to an unusual confluence of other factors. Necropsies of whales that beached in the Canary Islands in 2002 during international naval exercises showed brain hemorrhages, vascular ruptures and lung congestion. One theory is that they bolt from depths so quickly their organs can’t handle rapid pressure changes — akin to the “bends,” or embolisms that divers suffer when surfacing too quickly. As a concession to state concerns, the Navy agreed not to lay fiber-optic cable and transducers during calving season, which runs from mid-November to mid-April. Wannamaker said it would resolve many concerns if the Navy made the same pledge for sonar training. The Navy responded that option has “been given consideration” but that they want to retain “flexibility.” Wannamaker said the groups are pondering a lawsuit, not trusting that more studies and surveys will sway the final decision. “Once you build a $100 million project,” she said, “nobody is going to tell them they can’t use it.” Full story here.