Navy analysis shows higher risk to marine mammals

An Associated Press story came out even before the Navy officially published its environmental impact statement in the Federal Register.

The EIS predicted that 200 deaths and 1,600 instances of hearing loss would be suffered by marine mammals in the Navy’s testing and training ranges in Hawaii and California, reported AP writer Audrey McAvoy.

The old Navy analysis, she said, listed injuries or deaths to about 100 marine mammals.

So what caused these increased estimates of injury and death, and what are the implications for the Northwest Training and Testing Range Complex in Washington state?

It turns out that the causes are multiple and the implications many, as I reported in a story in Sunday’s Kitsap Sun.

In both California-Hawaii and the Northwest, the greatest effects come from the use of sonar and explosives, which the Navy considers essential to proper training and testing. By far, the greatest number of injuries and deaths are to dolphins. But the higher numbers do not mean that the Navy will be changing its operations to a great degree. If one doesn’t read this carefully, the higher numbers are easy to get confused.

To better understand the increased numbers, I asked for help from Sheila Murray, public information officer for Navy Region Northwest. She arranged a conference call with Navy officials Alex Stone, project manager; John Van Name, senior environmental planner; and Roy Sokolowski, an acoustic modeling expert.

“I would like to point out,” Alex told me at the outset, “that there is quite a bit of difference between this study and the previous studies.”

We had a good discussion, but here’s the bottom line: Without running more computer simulations, it is hard to identify the precise source of the increased injuries predicted in the new EIS for California-Hawaii. They can, however, be divided into three categories:

  1. New activities that the Navy wishes to conduct or an increased tempo of existing activities,
  2. Ongoing activities not included in previous analyses, or
  3. New studies that adjust the model, such as greater effects on marine mammals than understood before (threshold changes) or a greater number of marine mammals in areas where activities are taking place (density changes).

I’m told that the greatest increase in numbers comes from additional studies and more accurate modeling. The Navy has spent millions of dollars studying the effects of its operations on the environment, with particular emphasis on marine mammals.

Navy officials emphasize that they are striving to protect the environment. They say that can be accomplished while adequately training and testing Navy personnel to protect the United States from enemy threats. But it’s a balancing act.

I’m hoping that the Navy can produce a fact sheet clarifying the numbers for readers of the California-Hawaii EIS, even if it takes more analysis. It could be a chart showing the number of “takes” for each species under the old and new analysis, with a breakdown describing how much of the increase fits into each of the above categories.

I’m told that similar increases are likely to be seen when the Navy unveils its EIS for the Northwest Training and Testing Range Complex, scheduled for release toward the end of next year. To avoid confusion, it would help if a fact sheet explaining the numbers would be released at the same time.

In my story on Sunday, I talked a little about what environmental groups may do with the new analysis being used in California and Hawaii. Some organizations last year filed a lawsuit over testing and training in the Northwest. More will be coming out in the future.

As for other parts of the country, Navy training and testing continue to make the news. A report last week by David Fleshler of the Sun Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., revealed:

“The South Florida Ocean Measurement Facility, located off Port Everglades, will see an increase in ship traffic, mine countermeasure training and the testing of unmanned underwater vehicles, according to the environmental review (released by the Navy).

“The facility encompasses a network of undersea cables and detection devices used to determine the acoustical and electromagnetic characteristics of different ships.

“Under the new testing plan, ‘you will definitely be seeing new classes of ships,’ said Roxie Merritt, spokeswoman for Naval Surface Warfare Center, Carderock Division, which includes South Florida.”

While the story did not include estimates of harm to marine mammals, it did include a quote from Michael Jasny of the Natural Resources Defense Council:

“When the Navy intrudes such intense disruption into the environment, it tears at the very fabric of their surroundings. Sonar can have a range of effects causing animals to break off foraging, abandon habitat or die on the beach.”

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