Environmentalists rip Navy sonar, live-fire training plans

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Twenty groups say a five-year Navy plan for testing and training off Fort Lauderdale and other Atlantic Ocean sites would cause “unprecedented harm” to whales, dolphins and other marine wildlife.

The groups filed a letter this week saying the Navy’s proposed use of sonar, live-fire training and working up of new destroyers, submarines and other warships will deafen marine mammals, entangle them in cables and raise the risk of mass strandings.

The Navy wants to test and train in 2.6 million square miles of ocean from Maine to Texas, starting in 2014. Among the testing sites will be the South Florida Ocean Measurement Facility, a network of undersea cables and detection devices off Port Everglades. It would involve an increase in ship traffic, mine countermeasure training and the testing of unmanned underwater vehicles.

The analysis by the Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club, Defenders of Wildlife and other groups shows the use of sonar and explosives would cause more than 2.25 million cases of temporary hearing loss among marine mammals, more than 10,000 cases of permanent hearing loss, nearly 6,000 lung injuries and more than 800 deaths.

“While these predictions of injury are shocking — and, we believe, still underestimate the harm to marine mammals from the Navy’s activities — they confirm what stranding events have evidenced, scientists have studied, and the public has believed for years: Navy training and testing activities endanger whales and dolphins at intolerable levels,” states the letter.

Jene Nissen, project manager for the Navy’s environmental impact statement, said the Navy has planned elaborate procedures to minimize the danger to marine mammals. If a whale or dolphin approaches an area where sonar or explosives are in use, an observer would alert superiors and the sonar power would be reduced or the explosive testing halted and moved.

He said whale strandings should not be an issue because strandings traced to naval sonar have taken place only in areas where the whales had no escape route and that wouldn’t be the case in the proposed sites. He said the training and testing is vital for sailors undertaking difficult, hazardous operations on behalf of the United States.

“I can’t emphasize enough how important it is that we provide the sailors the training they need, and we test the equipment and make sure it does work,” he said.

The U.S. Interior Department also filed a letter expressing concern about harm to manatees, piping plovers and sea turtles, as well as the impact of sonic booms on the bird populations of the Everglades and Dry Tortugas national parks.

The environmental groups acknowledged the need for testing and training but said important habitat for marine mammals should be off-limits and the Navy should do more to reduce the impact.

“Our organizations recognize the Navy’s important role in ensuring national security,” they wrote. “We also value the security a clean and healthy environment provides.”

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