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Navy Sonar Will Impact More Sea Mammals

Dolphins off the coast of Southern Calif. as USS Halsey conducts military exercise

New Navy documents show that over the next five years more dolphins, whales and other marine mammals are be hurt by sonar off Hawaii and Southern California than in previous years. In its official estimate, the Navy says that sonar training and testing might harm marine mammals 2.8 million times a year over five years.

The Navy, which is required to present estimates in order to be granted permits for these activities, emphasizes  that the numbers cover a larger testing area than before.

“These are just worst-case estimates,” Pacific Fleet spokesman Mark Matsunaga said. “That’s not to say we’re going to go out there and hurt them all.”

The estimate in the Navy’s impact statement for 2009-2013 was about 150,000 instances a year. One reason for the increase in numbers is that the new analysis also covers training and testing in waters between Hawaii and California for the first time.

“Each time around, each time we swing through this process, we get better, we take a harder look, we become more inclusive,” said John Van Name, senior environmental planner at the U.S. Pacific Fleet.

Still, the news has caused alarm among environmental and animal protection groups.

“The numbers are staggering,” said Zak Smith, an attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, “and there is absolutely no corresponding mitigation to account for this harm.”

navy-sonar-1-051412Twelve million potential exposures to sonar over the next five years are listed in the “behavioral” category, which is the least harmful category and refers to effects that cause the dolphins to abandon their current location. While “behavioral” impacts don’t cause hearing loss, they do create stress.

More serious are the two million incidents that cause temporary hearing loss, and the 2,000 that are likely to cause permanent hearing loss. Hearing loss is critical, even deadly, to whales and dolphins since they rely on echolocation for their very survival.

The Navy also estimates that the testing of traditional explosives, along with their use in training programs, might kill more than 200 dolphins, whales and other marine mammals each year.

The Navy is not the only institution to operate sonar in the ocean. Oil companies routinely use it to search for good drilling sites. And these sonar operations are one of the top suspects in the deaths of thousands of dolphins so far this year off the coast of Peru.

In January, environmental groups sued the government for granting the Navy permits to test underwater sonar along the West Coast. The suit has not yet been settled.

And in 2008, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against environmental groups and allowed the Navy to continue its sonar operations. Here’s a report of that from NBC at that time:

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Public comment on the Navy’s new draft environmental impact statement is being accepted at http://hstteis.com.