Navy sticks to plan for sonar range

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — The Navy believes sonar in a planned training range for submarine warfare off the coast of north Florida will not disturb calving by endangered North Atlantic right whales, it said in an environmental impact statement Friday.

Environmentalists reacted with disappointment that the Navy plans to go ahead with development of its Undersea Warfare Training Center in Atlantic waters 75 miles off the coast of Mayport.

The coasts of north Florida and south Georgia are the primary calving grounds of the right whales, who travel to the area from New England during the winter to give birth and nurse their calves.

The right whale is among the world’s most endangered mammals. Researchers believe there are only about 300 to 350 remaining.

Environmentalists argue that mid-frequency active sonar used by warships and aircraft to locate submarines can disrupt whale feeding patterns, and in the most extreme cases can kill whales by causing them to beach themselves. Scientists don’t fully know how it hurts whales.

However, the Navy said Friday that the effect on marine mammals would be negligible.

Vicki Cornish, wildlife policy director for the Ocean Conservancy, in Washington, D.C., said there were other areas where the training range could have been built.

“I guess I’m surprised the Jacksonville area was the preferred alternative considering this is the calving ground for a critically endangered species. This was not the best place to site a training range,” Cornish said.

The Navy plans to place 300 sensors connected to shore by fiber optic cables in water depths from 120 to 1,200 feet over an area of 500 nautical miles. The primary users of the range will be ships, submarines and aircraft training to fight submarines. Construction will take up to three years.

Earlier this year, the National Marine Fisheries Service approved the Navy’s plan but required it to take precautions to protect the whales and other marine animals.

The Georgia Department of Natural Resources and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission are also concerned about the sonar. Florida had asked the Navy to cancel the project or at least close the range from mid-October to mid-April. That’s the period the whales are in the area.

The Navy also looked at areas off the coasts of South Carolina, North Carolina and Virginia, as well as the Gulf of Mexico, before recommending Florida’s east coast.

The Navy is expected to announce its Record of Decisions in the Federal Register later this summer, which will allow it to begin construction.

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