Pierside sonar in Everett raises new concerns

Last Monday, Feb. 27, the Navy announced that it was beginning an environmental review that will lead up to a new federal permit involving Navy testing and training efforts in the Northwest, including the use of sonar at pierside in Puget Sound. See Kitsap Sun, Feb. 27.

Two days later, workers and passengers on the Clinton-Mukilteo ferry heard sonar pings apparently vibrating through the hull loud enough to be heard above the water. Scott Veirs was the first to report this issue in his blog Orcasphere that same day.

Jason Wood, a bioacoustician and research associate at The Whale Museum in Friday Harbor, made some phone calls and issued this report:

“The crew in the engine room, the captain, and passengers could hear the sonar, at times so loudly that the ferry agent on land could hear the sonar coming up through the ferry while it was at the dock…. The operations center called the Everett Naval base, but got no answers. They also called the Coast Guard. No (Navy) or Coast Guard vessels were reported seen during the sonar incident, other than a naval vessel at the dock in the Everett Navy yard.”

I phoned Sheila Murray, spokeswoman for Navy Region Northwest, who confirmed that the sonar was coming from the USS Shoup, docked at Naval Station Everett. She issued this statement:

“In response to your query, the Navy was conducting pierside testing of mid-frequency active sonar at Naval Station Everett yesterday. This is routine testing that is a longstanding and ongoing requirement, and is an essential process in preparing a Navy ship to get underway.

“Pierside testing is not continuous, but consists of very brief transmissions of acoustic energy interspersed with longer silent periods.”

The Shoup gained a notorious reputation among some killer whale researchers in 2003, when the intense sound of sonar pings was reported to have caused J pod to flee in a confused pattern. See Water Ways, Feb. 11, for links to videos of that incident.

Sheila also confirmed that this is the kind of “pierside testing” contemplated for the new permit being sought from the National Marine Fisheries Service, a permit that will allow incidental harassment of marine mammals under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Such activities will be analyzed in an upcoming environmental impact statement, as I described last week.

Reporter Gary Chittim of KING-5 television reported concerns from whale-watching skippers and from John Calambokidis of Cascadia Research, who said one or more gray whales may have been in the vicinity when the sonar was deployed in Everett last week. Among the concerns of whale-watching operators is that the sonar could drive away the whales and affect their business.

I asked Sheila what kind of mitigation measures are used to protect marine mammals when sonar is deployed at pierside, such as in Everett, and she provided me with a fact sheet on the Protective Measures Assessment Protocol, or PMAP (PDF 136 kb).

The fact sheet states that PMAP is an interactive software tool developed in 2004 “to help Navy units conduct safe, effective training at sea.”

“Protective measures contained in PMAP include many actions that are already common practice, such as posting trained lookouts and avoiding certain critical areas as well as other event-specific actions…

Examples of PMAP mitigation/protective measures:

  • Employment of qualified watchstanders and lookouts
  • Navy personnel received NMFS approved training to aid in spotting marine mammals
  • Survey the area prior to conducting the event
  • Establish safety or exclusion zones where the event will NOT occur if a marine mammal is sighted
  • Avoidance of features that may attract protected species, such as algal mats, Sargassum rafts and/or coral reefs
  • Use of passive listening devices
  • Sonar power down or shut down zones
  • Special instructions for designated critical habitats and/or sanctuaries as required…

The software is capable of being run directly from a website and incorporates “all mitigation measures from completed environmental analyses in the U.S. Navy’s major training areas along the East Coast, Gulf of Mexico, Southern California, Hawaiian Islands, Pacific Northwest and Marianas Islands.”

What is not described in the fact sheet is whether the Navy uses anything but “qualified watchstanders” to determine the location of marine mammals, including our endangered Southern Resident killer whales. It has been an ongoing question whether the Navy checks out visual sightings reported to Orca Network or listens to the Salish Sea Hydrophone Network. The “use of passive listening devices,” mentioned in the list, has never been fully explained.

A factsheet from the National Marine Fisheries Service says the agency has approached the Navy to see if killer whales could be tracked by hydrophones. This is how NMFS described it in a question-and-answer format:

“The Navy’s response is that there is ‘no Navy environmental hydrophone network along the US West Coast.’ The Navy also noted that ‘Any other “Navy” system would be more operational and classified, in addition to not being used for environmental analysis.’”

Fred Felleman, Northwest consultant for Friends of the Earth, has been pressing the Navy to cooperate in tracking marine mammals without compromising its military operations.

As for the Navy’s next permit under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, work is starting now to have the permit completed by 2015, when the current one expires.

Kimberly Kler, environmental planner for the Navy, told me that the permit is primarily a consolidation of permits for the existing testing and training activities at existing ranges in the Northwest.

Pierside testing and maintenance of sonar systems is not covered by the existing permit but will be added in the future after consideration of the environmental consequences. The Navy has acknowledged that some of its sonar activities are not covered by existing permits. See my report of the fast-attack submarine USS San Francisco, Kitsap Sun, April 10, 2009.

Removed from the list of allowed activities in the new permit will be training that sinks vessels off the Washington Coast.

On the other hand, harbor-security training in inland waters might be increased, but it would involve smaller ships without sonar, Kler said. Also, testing for up to 14 days could resume in Carr Inlet in South Puget Sound, but the exact type of testing is yet to be described.

Mitigation measures will be discussed and possibly changed under the new permit, Kimberly Kler acknowledged. “Validated science will be incorporated into the analysis.”

Additional details should be available by the time eight open houses are held on the new permit, beginning Tuesday in Oak Harbor. Go to “Open House Information Sessions” for the schedule and “Northwest Training and Testing EIS/OEIS” for overall information as it becomes available.

One thought on “Pierside sonar in Everett raises new concerns

  1. How or where do you propose that the Navy conduct sonar testing and training? If we have no defense, it won’t matter whether some whales have been saved…

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