Whales could face sonar threat
The imperiled right whale might soon have more to watch out for than containerships.
The U.S. Navy has come back with a new proposal to build a massive sonar training range along the ocean bottom off the Southeast coast, after the first plan was opposed by wildlife agencies and conservation groups worried about the whales and other marine species.
The second proposal isn't much different from the first. Using "new science" to study environmental impact, the Navy has concluded again that the 575-square mile grid of sonar noisemaking devices wouldn't do any more than temporarily disrupt the whales.
"The environmental impact study does show there are some behavioral reactions to sound. But the effects are low level and temporary. There's no permanent damage," said Jene Nissen, study projects manager.
Conservationists worry that sonar and other man-made noises could be deafening and frighten the whales into lethal beach strandings and rapid surfacing. Whales are thought to communicate and navigate using whistles and echoes like sonar. The new Navy study follows a 2006 study that met solid opposition from conservation and fishing groups.
The Navy's continuing position that sonar doesn't damage whales, despite scientific studies proving otherwise, "is almost stupefying," said Michael Jasny, of the environmental advocate Natural Resources Defence Council. With the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration about to slow down shipping to protect the species, "something doesn't compute," he said.
The new study moves the Navy's "preferred location" from off North Carolina, where three dozen whales of different species beached and died on the Outer Banks in 2005 after sonar blasts offshore, to off Jacksonville, Fla., considered the heart of the winter calving grounds. The ocean off Charleston is one of two other alternatives in both studies.
Jacksonville is preferred because it's closer to helicopter bases whose anti-submarine equipment would be used in training, Nissen said. The range would also start 30 nautical miles farther out to sea than the designated critical habitat for the whale.
Public hearings on the environmental impact statement will be held in four cities, including Charleston on Oct. 6.