Conservationists, Navy differ on fleet training’s effects on marine species off Southeast coast

A right whale swims with dolphin about three miles off Tybee Island at the Georgia-South Carolina border in 2007.

Nearly 200 whales and other marine mammals could be killed and thousands injured by the next round of Navy training and testing off the Southeast coast.

To see the report

The final Environmental Impact Statement on the Navy’s Atlantic Fleet Testing and Training range is available at www.AFTTEIS.com.

Or none.

That’s the difference between assessments by conservationists and the Navy on the environmental impact of operating a massive sea and air warfare-training range for the next five years along 50,000 square miles off the East Coast.

The final required report on those impacts was released recently.

Environmental groups say exercises in the range, where the Navy would sometimes use active sonar and explosives, could deafen and/or be lethal to marine mammals such as whales and dolphins that navigate by echolocation, and could harm other species such as sea turtles.

They worry that intensive training activity could spur “population sinks,” areas where animals die or fail to reproduce, and the depleted area then draws in more animals who do the same.

“The (report) confirms the atrocious numbers in the draft report, (including) more than 10 million incidents of disruption to feeding, breeding and nursing, almost any activity that marine mammals need to do (to survive),” said Michael Jasny, Natural Resources Defense Council senior policy analyst.

“They can pull out a table (from the report) all they want and leave out the analysis,” said Jene Nissen, Atlantic Fleet Training and Testing project manager for the Navy. The numbers are required worst-case possibilities based on computer modelling, he said.

For instance, the 10 million incidents of disrupted behavior include behavior as simple as animals turning their heads when they hear a noise, he said.

“Though there is the potential for (deaths and injuries) to occur,” he said, “we don’t expect it to happen,” based on studies and previous exercises.

The Navy has conducted training offshore for 60 years with little environmental impact, he said, and has changed how the exercises are conducted when problems have emerged.

Generally, the animals leave the area when equipment is positioned and readied, he said.

Any number of marine mammals, including the critically endangered right whales, frequent the waters off South Carolina and the entire coast. Fewer than 500 right whales are known to exist off the East Coast.

Among the chief threats to the animals are boat strikes.

The concern for deafening from sonar, explosives and other loud underwater noises has risen in recent years with reports of strandings that were otherwise inexplicable. For instance, Navy sonar might have killed three dozen whales that later turned up on an Outer Banks beach in January 2005, but an ensuing investigation found no solid evidence.

The Navy has made efforts to refine how it trains to reduce the impacts, and is leading sponsor of impact studies.

Conservationists say that when it comes to the military, too many concessions are made.

Jasny takes issue with a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service finding of no significant impact from the Navy training, despite the numbers in the report and even though the finding goes on to express concern that not enough information is provided for the service to gauge impact on some species.

“The most vulnerable species are affected at much lower (sound) levels than the Navy would have you believe,” Jasny said. “The Navy likes to talk about how much money it spends on marine mammal science. But at some point they have to listen to the science.”

Nissen said the science supports the report’s finding.

“We take our mitigation very seriously,” he said, but that has to be balanced with the critical need for ongoing training in a world of continually emerging threats “to enable sailors to do their jobs and come back safely.”

The final report must be approved by the Navy and federal environmental agencies. Nissen said he expected it to be signed off by the January 2014 expiration of the current permits for the range.

As the range is planned, construction is underway of a 500-square-mile grid of transmitters and receivers connected by cable, lying on the ocean floor off Jacksonville, Fla. Navy submarines and ships would conduct training exercises across that grid.

Environmental groups have sued in federal courts to stop it, lost the first round and are awaiting a ruling in a second round, said Catherine Wannamaker, of the Southern Environmental Law Center.

Reach Bo Petersen at 937-5744, @bopete on twitter or Bo Petersen Reporting on Facebook.

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