Proposed Naval Warfare Training Range Near Only Nursery for Endangered Right Whale Poses Threat
The U.S. Navy's plans to use a marine area comprised of a protected area for snapper-grouper and adjacent to the only known calving ground for endangered North Atlantic right whales as an undersea warfare training range fail to adequately consider harmful environmental impacts, according to the Southern Environmental Law Center.
“The Navy’s proposing a dangerous perfect storm of increased traffic, construction, sonar, and debris in an area critical to commercially valuable and endangered marine life,” said Catherine Wannamaker, attorney, Southern Environmental Law Center. “In this proposal, increased traffic between the naval bases and training range would cross the right whale’s only known calving ground without regard for breeding season or speed. The warfare range itself is inexplicably superimposed on a protected area for commercially valuable snapper and grouper species.”
The Navy plans to lay cables in water depths from 120 to 1,200 feet over an area of 500 nautical miles of ocean—including cables connecting the range to shore through the right whale calving grounds. Construction may take up to three years.
Navy ships – exempt from speed restrictions – would pass through the calving ground when traveling between the bases and proposed training area. The Navy plans to conduct 470 annual exercises on the training range with up to three vessels and two aircraft engaged in simulated warfare. Ships and aircraft would travel to the range from Mayport, FL, and Kings Bay, GA. Ship strikes are the single largest cause of death for right whales. During the 2006 calving season, five whales were killed or injured by ship strikes or entanglements in a population with only about 100 reproductive females.
The Navy’s plans include deployment of non-explosive exercise torpedoes, target submarine simulators, and various forms of active and passive sonar. An assortment of debris will be introduced into the area and left behind, including 3,000 sonobuoys per year, exercise torpedoes, parachute and rope assemblages, and ballast.
Entanglements are another known cause of death for right whales and sea turtles. According to scientists, approximately 10 to 30 percent of the right whale population is entangled each year. Once entangled, animals have trouble eating, breathing or swimming, all of which can have fatal results.
Ingestion of marine debris traveling the ocean’s currents and littering beaches is also known to be a potentially fatal threat to endangered sea turtles.
According to its own documents, environmental impacts were not part of the Navy’s criteria in selecting a site for its warfare training range.
Despite Georgia’s objection to the proposal and concerns raised by environmental groups and the state of Florida, the Navy rejected numerous proposed measures that could have lessened the environmental impact of its activities. It rejected:
- Speed restrictions adopted by the National Marine Fisheries Service to protect right whales,
- Seasonal restrictions on training during the right whale calving period,
- The use of third party observers to help spot right whales,
- The surveying of the training area prior to exercises to ensure that no marine mammals are present, and
- The use of ramp-up sonar activities that could clear the area of marine mammals before training exercises begin.
The Navy has even refused to report marine mammals sighted during training exercises to further scientific understanding of the species on the grounds that this would burden Navy personnel during training exercises. Although the Navy does not plan to use sonar within the critical habitat, it has not proposed any mitigation for sonar traveling from the training range into the calving ground during the calving season.
In a process being closely monitored by the Southern Environmental Law Center for over three years, the Navy released its final environmental impact statement on Friday. SELC submitted comments to the U.S. Navy outlining concerns on behalf of twelve environmental groups last year. The U.S. Navy is expected to issue its record of decision in the “Federal Register” in the coming months and must receive a letter of authorization from the National Marine Fisheries Service for incidental take of marine species.
Note to editors: Photos and video b-roll of right whales are available at http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/pr/species/mammals/cetaceans/rightwhale_photos.htm
Video b-roll of sea turtles is available at http://www.fws.gov/video/broll.htm
Photos of sea turtles are available at http://digitalrepository.fws.gov/index.php
The U.S. Navy’s final Environmental Impact Statement is available at http://projects.earthtech.com/uswtr/EIS/FOEIS-EIS_2009/FOEIS-EIS_2009.htm
The Southern Environmental Law Center’s comments on the draft plan are available.
About Southern Environmental Law Center The Southern Environmental Law Center is the only regional nonprofit using the power of the law to protect the health and environment of the Southeast (Virginia, Tennessee, North and South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama). Founded in 1986, SELC's team of 40 legal experts represent more than 100 partner groups on issues of climate change and energy, air and water quality, forests, the coast and wetlands, transportation, and land use. WEB: www.SouthernEnvironment.org