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Environmentalists call for more care in naval training after 2 whales dragged into port by visiting destroyer

An environmental group is asking the U.S. Navy to re-examine its operations in the Pacific Ocean following the death of two endangered fin whales that appear to have been struck by an Australian naval destroyer during a joint training exercise off San Diego.

One of the whales, which had been towed out to sea after it was dislodged from the ship’s hull, washed up Wednesday at Orange County’s Bolsa Chica State Beach.

In a letter sent this week to the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration, the Pentagon and the U.S. Department of Commerce, the Center for Biological Diversity asks the Navy to look at its three training ranges between Hawaii and Southern California and examine how the service’s actions affect marine mammals and how it can further avoid killing or injuring animals.

The center’s letter threatens the federal agencies with a lawsuit if corrective action isn’t taken, saying the event is “a stark, tragic reminder” of the harm the training activities can have.

The Navy presently operates under a permit issued by NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service, which is tasked with addressing the effects of human activities on protected marine species under the authority of the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act.

The Center for Biological Diversity’s letter asks the federal agencies to consider the circumstances of the two whale deaths – which appear to be mother and calf – and newer studies on dangers to marine animals to ensure better mitigation measures are in place to comply with the Endangered Species Act. The letter also asks the Fisheries Service to re-examine its previous conclusion that the Navy’s activities have no more than a negligible impact on endangered whales.

Studies are showing that whales are increasingly being run over and killed by vessels (including commercial vessels) off California, said Kristen Monsell, the Center for Biological Diversity’s oceans director. Other studies show negative effects from sonar and antisubmarine warfare, she said. One study links antisubmarine warfare to several beaked whale strandings, she said.

Officials with the Royal Australian Navy said Thursday, May 20, in an email, they take marine mammal safety seriously and are “disheartened this incident occurred.”

The Australian Navy, the U.S. Navy and NOAA officials are reviewing how the whales were killed. A genetics test will confirm if the two whales were mother and calf. If found they were unrelated, officials will consider if they were hit separately. They will also try to pinpoint the location of the strike. Information gleaned will be used to prevent future incidents, officials said.

“This incident is under thorough review, and we do not have the facts as to when the strike may have occurred,” said Cmdr. Sean Robertson, a spokesman for the Navy’s Third Fleet based in San Diego.

NOAA officials do not comment on the pending litigation, said Michael Milstein, spokesman for the agency.

Navy training meant to be as realistic as possible can include explosions in the water, torpedo tests, use of sonar and high-energy lasers, underwater vehicles and multiple ships moving around at once.

At least 39 separate species, including whales, sea lions, dolphins and sea turtles, live within the Navy’s Southern California training ranges. They can suffer from disruptions to their migration and feeding patterns, permanent hearing loss and disturbances in breeding, nursing and mating, or worse. Biologists have found the endangered blue, fin, and humpback whales, and endangered Hawaiian monk seals have been affected.

Since 2009, the Navy has had to secure permits from the Fisheries Service for training.

Also since that time, only two whales have been killed.

The permits, typically for five-year periods unless there is an issue and NOAA needs to reevaluate, set limits on how many animals can be killed or injured in a specific time period before training has to pause.

“When the Navy trains, we employ protective measures we’ve worked hard with NOAA to put in place,” Robertson said.

Robertson said measures include 24-7 lookouts who stand on the stern and aft of the ships to spot marine life and reducing power and speed when animals are sighted.

Sailors also stop active sonar transmissions when marine mammals are within a predetermined safety range and safety zones are established around detonations and maneuvering vessels. The Navy also limits training when it is breeding, migration and feeding times for specific species.

In the current agreement with NOAA, the Navy can “take” which means kill – no more than three whales during a seven-year period and no more than two from a certain species. The more a species’ population is endangered,  the lower the limit.

For example, fins whales are limited at two, humpback whales living near Hawaii are limited at two and gray whales are limited at two. Sperm and blue whales are limited to one each.

NOAA officials don’t yet know if the two fin whales will count against the U.S. Navy’s “take” quota, said Milstein. The incident appears unique for several reasons: evidence of a foreign military strike has not been reported before and two whales have not been killed by one ship at once.

The fin whale population along the West Coast is estimated at about 8,100. Data from NOAA indicates the population has been growing by about 7.5% a year.

When the Navy in 2014 asked to step up its training in the Pacific with more underwater explosions, torpedo tests and ship-sinking and bomb training, a U.S. District Court judge in Hawaii ruled in favor of a lawsuit brought by the Center for Biological Diversity and other environmental groups, and the Navy agreed to stop training in ecologically sensitive areas near the islands.

In 2018, the Navy studied potential environmental impacts of its testing and training activities, with a focus on marine mammals in the Southern California and Hawaii training areas. NOAA granted it a new, five-year permit, which in 2020 was extended another two years through 2025.  The new regulations, which went into effect in 2019, limit the use of sonar and explosions in two areas off Southern California and around four islands in Hawaii.

Despite the greater restrictions the Navy is training under now, Monsell said she would like to see more speed reductions and less use of sonar and explosives.

“Any speeding ship poses a threat to whales, whether military or commercial,” she said.

The center has also brought a lawsuit against the National Marine Fisheries Service and the U.S. Coast Guard over approvals for shipping lanes in the San Francisco Bay and Los Angeles/Long Beach port areas. That case is pending in the Northern District of California.

According to data from NOAA, at least 15 whales were killed by commercial ship strikes off California in 2018, the highest annual total ever observed. In all U.S. waters, 31 whales were killed by commercial strikes in 2018.

John Calambokidis, a biologist with the nonprofit Cascadia Research Collective, which provides data to NOAA, said likely one in three of the whales struck are endangered.

He would like to see the Navy become more flexible in allowing commercial traffic to pass through small areas of its training ranges, so they could avoid whale concentration areas.

“I think larger commercial traffic is the more serious problem for ship strikes and more could be done on that issue,” said Calambokidis. “I do think the Navy could play a much more positive role in the ship strike issue.”

Source: Orange County Register

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