Tag Archives: U.S. Navy

Hood Canal nominated as Sentinel Landscape with ties to military

Hood Canal and its surrounding watershed have been nominated as a Sentinel Landscape, an exclusive designation that recognizes both the natural resource values and the national defense mission of special areas across the country.

USS Henry M. Jackson, a Trident submarine, moves through Hood Canal in February on a return trip to Naval Base Kitsap – Bangor.
U.S. Navy photo by Lt. Cmdr. Michael Smith

If the designation is approved, it will bolster applications for federal funding to protect and restore important habitats and to maintain working forests in and around Hood Canal. Given the uncertain budget for environmental programs under the Trump administration, it wouldn’t hurt to have the Department of Defense supporting the protection of Hood Canal.

The Sentinel Landscapes Partnership involves the U.S. departments of Agriculture, Defense and Interior. The idea is to coordinate the efforts of all three agencies in locations where their priorities overlap, according to the 2016 Report on Sentinel Landscapes (PDF 5.6 mb).

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Canadian sonar raises new safety concerns

The U.S. Navy has developed a policy against using active sonar during training exercises in Puget Sound, but the Canadian Navy has no such policy — as we learned this week when loud pings were heard around the San Juan Islands.

After Monday’s incident, whale advocates were in an uproar over concern for killer whales, dolphins and other marine mammals. Jeanne Hyde was the first to raise the alarm and later placed a sample of the sound on her blog, “Whale of a Porpose.”

Michael Jasny of the Natural Resources Defense Council railed against the Canadians’ use of sonar in his blog on “Switchboard”:

“The simple fact is that these waters should not be used for sonar training. Period. Even the U.S. Navy — which has thus far refused to protect marine mammal habitat anywhere else on the west coast — has effectively put the area off-limits to sonar use.

“NRDC will appeal to both the Canadian and U.S. governments to ensure that this patently dangerous activity does not happen in this place again.”

The U.S. Navy policy against sonar use during training was solidly confirmed in 2009, when the National Marine Fisheries Service issued a permit for the Navy to use sonar off Washington’s coast. The permit did not include inland waterways.

When I inquired about this, Navy officials confirmed that they never requested authorization for training in waters east of Cape Flattery. For details, check out the story I wrote for the Kitsap Sun, July 29, 2009.

Contrary to some beliefs, the Navy did not say it would never use sonar in inland waters under any circumstances. In fact, in April of 2009, the USS San Francisco, a fast-attack submarine, left Bremerton after a refit and conducted “required training dives,” including the use of sonar that was reported as unusually intense. See Kitsap Sun, April 10, 2009.

How did that happen? The federal permit, according to the Navy, makes an exception for sonar related to “safety and navigation; testing; maintenance; and research, development, test and evaluation (RDT&E).”

The San Francisco incident fell under “safety and navigation,” according to Navy spokeswoman Sheila Murray.

I’m not sure whether the Navy has ever answered the question of how it intends to address potential harm to marine mammals when sonar is used outside approved testing ranges, for which environmental reviews have been conducted. Meanwhile, a coalition of environmental groups has sued NMFS for failing to protect marine mammals within testing ranges along the West Coast. Check out the news release by NRDC.

And so we return to this week’s incident with the Canadian Navy, which has no restrictions on where sonar can be used in training exercises, although the Navy follows a written procedure designed to protect marine mammals, according to Lt. Diane Larose of the Royal Canadian Navy. Download the procedure here.

That policy was followed early Monday morning when the Canadian frigate HMCS Ottawa deployed sonar in Haro Strait on the Canadian side of the border, Larose told me. The protection measures, said to be consistent with those of other NATO navies, include watching (with night-vision equipment if necessary), listening with passive sonar and other gear, and searching with airplanes, helicopters or submarines, if available.

It would be interesting to conduct a test to determine if these precautions really work. Can sentries aboard a ship find and identify a few killer whales in the dark across miles of water where islands may impede visual sightings? If not, then someone needs to rethink these procedures, because these are the conditions that were present on Monday when the Ottawa was using its sonar.

Scott Veirs, who helps maintain the Salish Sea Hydrophone Network, pieced together information from Monday’s incident with the help of Jason Wood, research associate with The Whale Museum. Here’s a summary of the analysis on his blog Orca Sound:

“Below are the compressed (mp3) recordings and coarse spectrograms of the sounds that were auto-detected this morning. They begin with a series of low frequency sounds and echoes that may have been from an impulsive source, like a detonation or explosion. Then the series of high-frequency pings occurs between 4:42:50 and 5:08:17 at three network locations: Lime Kiln (13 pings), Port Townsend (1), and Orcasound (1).

“While we are not yet sure if pings were detected at Neah Bay or on the NEPTUNE Canada hydrophones located near the entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca, it appears that the sonar ensonified a good portion of the eastern Strait of Juan de Fuca and southern Haro Strait.” (Emphasis added by me.)

Before the end of that same day, killer whales could be heard on hydrophones in the area and were later identified as our local K and L pods, according to reports made to Orca Network. The proximity of the whales to the exercise was disconcerting.

“It would have been more comforting if we had not seen them for a couple of weeks,” Scott noted.

The question on everyone’s mind relates to potential injury to killer whales and other marine mammals from the intense sound of sonar pings. During the 2003 incident with the USS Shoup, killer whale researchers in the area reported J pod fleeing the sound in a confused pattern, though Navy biologists reviewing the video denied that the orcas were acting unusual.

Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research reviews that incident on a video for Earthjustice. Equally revealing but with less commentary is the raw video of the incident.

Studies are ongoing to consider the effect of sonar on a variety of marine mammals, but Scott Veirs points out that Navy’s sonar is most powerful at a frequency of about 7 kilohertz, which is within the sensitive part of a killer whale’s hearing range — “not the most sensitive, but close to it,” he told me.

“Mid-frequency sonar is a bit of a red flag, because the frequency overlap is really quite complete,” he said.

I was wondering whether the sonar pings heard Monday in Puget Sound were of any concern to the Canadian Navy. I shouldn’t have expected any introspection. Lt. Larose pointed out that nobody has reported seeing any marine mammals in the area at the time.

Will the Canadian Navy reconsider its policy in light of the U.S. Navy’s policy against training with sonar in Puget Sound? I posed the question and got this response from Larose:

“The Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) takes its role as environmental steward very seriously. The RCN’s Marine Mammal Mitigation Policy is reviewed annually to ensure that it reflects current scientific data, the capacities of Royal Canadian Navy equipment and environmental concerns. It is applicable to all Canadian military vessel wherever they may operate.

“Sonars found on board Canadian ships, submarines, and maritime aircraft, are different from that of our allies and therefore call for country specific mitigation policy.”

For years, more than a few marine mammal experts have been calling on the U.S. Navy to use its network of hydrophones to track endangered killer whales and other vulnerable species. It’s not enough, they say, for the Navy to post a lookout during training exercises when the Navy’s listening buoys have the potential of knowing with some precision where the whales are.

Fred Felleman, Northwest consultant for Friends of the Earth, says the Navy spends plenty of money filtering out biological sounds to detect the sounds of enemy ships. Similar algorithms could inform us when marine mammals pass within hearing range of Navy hydrophones.

“We’ve met with at least three admirals through the years to present them with explicit proposals,” Fred said. “They never said ‘no,’ but they never gave us an answer.

“Now that they are asking for permits from NOAA, they should be willing to make an obligation to help advance our understanding of the whales. The Navy knows this domain better than anybody. They are the best listeners on the planet.”

The Navy has been requesting and receiving “take” permits from NMFS with not much more mitigation that putting someone up on deck to look for marine mammals, Fred said, expressing his ongoing frustration.

He added, “It’s about time that the Navy stop asking for ‘takes’ and start finding ways of giving.”

Navy moves ahead with plan to use guard dolphins

Navy officials have approved a plan to deploy specially trained Atlantic bottlenose dolphins and California sea lions to protect the Navy’s submarine base at Bangor.

<em>Dolphins will be used to guard the Navy's submarine base at Bangor, similar to operations at King's Bay, Ga., and other places.</em><br><small>U.S. Navy photo by Veronica Birmingham</small>
Dolphins will be used to guard the Navy's submarine base at Bangor, similar to operations at King's Bay, Ga., and other places.
U.S. Navy photo by Veronica Birmingham

Roger Natsuhara, acting assistant secretary of the Navy for installation and environment, signed the record of decision (PDF 1.7 mb) on Wednesday. Check the document for official details about the program.

Reporter Ed Friedrick wrote a story about the decision for Thursday’s Kitsap Sun. His article includes the following description of how the Navy plans to use the marine mammals.

The dolphins, accompanied by handlers in small power boats, will work at night. If they find an intruder, they’ll swim back to the boat and alert the handler, who will place a strobe light on a dolphin’s nose. It will race back and bump the intruder’s back, knocking the light off. The light will float to the surface, marking the spot. The dolphin will swim back to the boat, join the handler, and they’ll clear out as security guards speed to the strobe to subdue the intruder.

Sea lions can carry in their mouths special cuffs attached to long ropes. If they find a suspicious swimmer, they clamp the cuff around the person’s leg. The intruder can then be reeled in.

The dolphins’ sonar is better than any that man has made and they’re best for moving quickly in open water. Sea lions can see and hear better underwater and are better for shallower work around piers

Looking back on recent news about water issues

The “common cold” is not what it used to be — or maybe I’m not what I used to be. Does anybody think our viruses today are more hostile?

In any case, a bout with some kind of respiratory bug has knocked me back about five days. I would call it the flu, except that I didn’t have much of a fever.

So now I find myself with a backlog of news stories that I had planned to discuss with you all. Since time doesn’t stop, there will be more stories tomorrow and the day after that.

So I’ll mention some of the interesting stories from the past week and offer you a chance to comment on any of these things. If something provokes your interest or concern, I’ll be happy to moderate or join the conversation.

Fuel spill at PSNS (Thursday)

Last Thursday, 500 gallons of jet fuel spilled from the USS Abraham Lincoln. Fortunately, the ship had been preboomed, so the spill was contained and did not spread out across the harbor.

I covered the first news story on this spill, and I still have some questions, but I haven’t been back to work long enough to get them answered. For example, I have always been told that you shouldn’t preboom highly volatile liquids, such as gasoline and kerosene, for fear they could catch fire. Has something changed about this idea? (I know one boom was already in place, which is now a standard Navy precaution. But they added another.)

Salmon migration (Sunday)

Sunday’s Kitsap Sun featured my annual story encouraging people to go out and watch chum salmon migrating upstream. As usual, the package included a map of local streams (interactive map for online viewers) and tips for watching the fish without disturbing them.

Wherever you live, you may be interested to know how the runs are shaping up, which I covered in a general way. Chum are doing quite well, but not like the records of the recent past. Pinks were amazing. Coho are coming in large, but their abundance varies by location.

Ueland gravel operation (Monday)

Reporter Derek Sheppard filled in well for me on a story I have been following for a couple of years. I’m talking about the public hearing to decide whether a gravel mine, rock quarry and possible concrete batch plant should be built west of Kitsap Lake. There are a lot of issues involved, including traffic on Northlake Way and water quality and quantity going into Chico Creek. The hearing was continued to Dec. 10, so there will be more discussion.

Gravel zoning in Jefferson County (Tuesday)

The Washington State Court of Appeals agreed that the Jefferson County commissioners acted properly in zoning 690 acres in East Jefferson as a “mineral resources land overlay.” Here’s a question: I had understood that the zoning was a prerequisite to the proposed pit-to-pier project, whether or not the zoning stood by itself. But the appeals court ruling states, “(the) future project is not dependent on the proposed action.” If someone would clarify for me, that would be great.

Brown pelican removed from endangered list (today)

I’m not sure how many people check the “Water, Water Everywhere” list at the top of this blog for stories, research and government actions, but I link to a lot of stuff there that I don’t have time to address in detail. Such was the case today with the nationwide de-listing of the brown pelican. Go to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service news release as well as an L.A. Times story.

Debate over Navy sonar can be uncomfortable, but worthwhile

Sea trials this week for the newly repaired submarine USS San Francisco in the Strait of Juan de Fuca once again raises the question of whether the Navy can lessen its harm to marine life while adequately training for warfare.

<i>USS San Francisco after underwater collision, Guam, Jan. 8, 2005.</i><small> U.S. Navy photo</small>
USS San Francisco after underwater collision, Guam, Jan. 8, 2005. U.S. Navy photo

Check out my story in today’s Kitsap Sun, where I recount some of the history of this debate, which isn’t about to end soon.

We’ve covered this question many times in Water Ways. (Just put “sonar” into the search engine of this blog to go back more than a year.) The Navy won the first round in the legal theater when the U.S. Supreme Court (PDF 308 kb) reversed lower federal courts and decided that it would not second-guess the Navy until more studies are done.

I know there are many people who believe it’s an open-and-shut case, that the debate should be over, that the Navy’s mission is too important to allow interference by environmentalists, lawyers, courts or politicians.
I believe, however, that the debate is worthwhile, provided we bring knowledge to the table, though it may be uncomfortable at times.

As a result of the Shoup incident in 2003, the Navy stopped using sonar in Puget Sound except on rare occasions, such as this week. It appears the move was good for whales and dolphins, and I have not heard of any profound regrets from the Navy.

The Navy has undertaken a great deal of research about the impacts of whales on sea life, as it should, and Navy commanders have committed to making the information public. From that, scientists can debate what is and is not safe. In the process, we all can learn.

OK, there are also debates within the debate — such as whether the studies are independent enough of Navy influence — but that’s another question.

While the public does not need to know all about Navy tactics and capabilities, I believe everyone is served by discussions that can lead to either 1) better protections for the environment, or 2) knowing what environmental sacrifices we are making to protect our country.

Maybe it’s my training and experience as a reporter, but I don’t believe any one person in this debate is totally right. I believe, however, that even folks with an extreme point of view can learn from this debate and contribute something to the discussion.
In closing, I’d like to respond to those who have criticized my stories for not containing enough “facts” or else brushing lightly over the details.

In the first case, I have a relatively good relationship with Navy officials, but (as anyone involved with the Navy knows), the Navy is very cautious about the information it releases, so often my stories are not as complete as I would like. If something is speculation or opinion, I try to label it as such.

The issue of details is often a judgment call. Looking back on my early career, I often filled my stories with details that left the average reader behind while satisfying a limited number of experts. Now, I tend to go the other way, trying to put things in context and leaving out a lot of details. Over the past year and a half, I have been fortunate to write this blog, Watching Our Water Ways, where I can post links to documents and Web sites for those who like to dig deeper. I hope that satisfies more people in the long run.

Commerce Secretary Locke could be good for salmon and whales

Former Washington governor Gary Locke was nominated this morning to be President Obama’s Secretary of Commerce, a department that oversees the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and other agencies integral to environmental issues in the Northwest.

Gary Locke accepts nomination for Commerce secretary. White House photo by Pete Souza
Gary Locke accepts nomination to be Commerce secretary.
White House photo by Pete Souza

“Gary knows the American Dream. He’s lived it. And that’s why he shares my commitment to do whatever it takes to keep it alive in our time,” Obama said in announcing the nomination. See also a transcript of Obama’s and Locke’s remarks.

I was preparing to write something about Locke’s environmental history in Washington state, then I saw a piece that Howard Garrett of Orca Network had written. So I’ve yielded this space to him, and I would welcome further comments from anyone:

Gov. Locke has been a reliable friend of the Southern Resident orcas.

You may recall that on May 5, 2003, the USS Shoup was training with mid-frequency active sonars in Haro Strait where 23 members of J pod were foraging. The whales were videotaped as they bunched up near the shore and seemed very agitated, and at least 7 porpoises washed up dead days later. In June, 2003 Gov. Locke wrote a letter to the acting secretary of the Navy requesting a report on the incident and an explanation of the mitigation measures to prevent it from happening again. He wrote: “The actual or potential impact of sonar use on Puget Sound marine mammals is a concern.”

Ten years ago Gov. Locke said about our endangered Chinook, “Extinction is not an option.”

As Secretary of Commerce, Locke will preside over the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Marine Fisheries Service (responsible for salmon and orca recovery) and will have a key role in determining how to best restore salmon runs in the Salish Sea and from the Columbia River to the Sacramento. The Obama team has declared that respect for science is back, and with Locke at Commerce and OSU marine biologist Jane Lubchenko as the new head of NOAA, there is every reason to expect that sound science will guide restoration efforts, at last.

Also, in December 2002, Governor Locke provided money from his own discretionary funds to pay for the rescue tug at Neah Bay to prevent oil spills, during the state’s $2-billion shortfall.

Gov. Locke is also among the political figures who have supported the goals of the Lolita Come Home campaign to retire the Southern resident orca captured in 1970 who remains on display in a Miami marine park. See Orca Network’s Captivity page.

If Gov. Locke is nominated and confirmed as Secretary of Commerce, he will be in a position to act on these principles immediately in the determination of the impacts of the proposed expansion of the Navy’s Northwest Training Range to include most of the waters along the coast from Neah Bay, WA, to Eureka, CA. If approved, multiple ships, subs and aircraft will be practicing with a wide range of sonars including explosive active sonars, along with demolition charges, torpedoes and a variety of anti-submarine munitions. See Orca Network’s page about the training range.

The comment period has been extended to March 11, and NOAA is required to review the proposal and comment on the potential impacts to marine mammals (including endangered Southern Resident orcas) and birds, fish (especially listed chinook salmon) and turtles along the coastline. The Navy EIS says no marine mammal mortalities are anticipated due to mitigations, such as placing observers on ships and listening for whale calls amid the maneuvering ships, sonars and explosions. As Secretary of Commerce, Locke (or Lubchenko) will review the EIS and at the very least, comment on how realistic that prediction of no mortalities really is. It’s unclear whether NOAA can hold up the training range expansion.

Locke can also be a valuable voice in Secretary of State Clinton’s diplomatic initiatives to tone down international tensions following 8 years of Bush/Cheney hostility, which degraded communications and contributed to the perceived need to train for an attack by enemy submarines.

Howard Garrett
Orca Network
Greenbank WA

Report discusses sonar effects and other ocean noises

Jim Cummings of the Acoustic Ecology Institute has once again packed a lot of interesting information about ocean noise — and particularly effects on marine mammals — into a special report released today.

The 29-page report, titled “Ocean Noise 2008: Science, Policy, Legal Developments,” covers many aspects of Navy sonar and other kinds of ocean noise that have become a concern among environmentalists and some marine mammal experts. I’m impressed with Cummings’ ability to get to the heart of these matters.

He summarized the report in an e-mail, which I have included at the end of this post. His bullet points about the past year are these:

  • Behavioral impacts clearly replaced strandings and deaths as the key issue for marine mammals encountering human noise.The legal tussles over mid-frequency and low-frequency active sonars continued, and the Supreme Court decision does not put an end to the controversy.
  • The legal tussles over mid-frequency and low-frequency active sonars continued, and the Supreme Court decision does not put an end to the controversy.
  • Shipping noise is moving very quickly to the forefront of international concerns about rising ocean noise.
  • The scientific community appears to be entering a new phase in its engagement with ocean noise, a natural result of the increasing emphasis on these issues over the past five years.

Cummings lists “interesting things to watch” in 2009. Again, read to the end of this post for his complete summary, headed by these bullet points:

  • The Navy and NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council) will be “test-driving” their recent agreement on mid-frequency active sonar.
  • In Alaska, Shell Oil will be challenging a recent ruling by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals that revoked their permits to conduct seismic surveys, using a line of argument very similar to that which prevailed for the Navy before the Supreme Court.
  • How will the Obama administration approach new offshore oil exploration and development on the US Outer Continental Shelf?
  • The possibility that noise causes stress responses in marine life is under increasing scrutiny, and could fundamentally alter the equation that is central to ocean noise regulation: if and how noise may contribute to long-term, population-level impacts.

The following is the full summary, but you can find more details in the report itself at the home page of the Acoustic Ecology Institute.
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Pens for guard dolphins are detailed in Corps application

The Navy has applied for an Army Corps of Engineers permit to build holding pens for the guard dolphins and sea lions at Kitsap Naval Base at Bangor. (See previous entries from Jan. 27 and Feb. 12.)

The Corps released the application today, including provisions for public comments and a possible public hearing. Download the notice, including drawings, from the Corps of Engineers Web site (PDF 568 kb).

Federal agencies must ensure that the project complies with federal laws, including the Endangered Species Act and Marine Mammal Protection Act.

The facility is a 9,892-square-foot floating dock with four floating enclosed dolphin pens and three enclosed sea lions pens. The pens are to be located 200 feet offshore in 20 to 30 feet of water.

Each dolphin pen would be 30 by 30 feet and 12 feet deep. Pens would be heated to 52 degrees as part of a closed-water circulation system, which would filter and clean the water.

Sea lions pens would be 30 by 30 feet and 8 feet deep. About half of each pen would consist of a haul-out area.

Office space, equipment storage and a small laboratory would be located on the floating facility. Upland support facilities of 7,500 square feet will include modular buildings for staff, lab space, food preparation area, storage and on-shore pools and pens for isolation during veterinary care.

Six power boats, 18 to 25 feet long, will dock at the facility and lend operational support when the dolphins are out in Hood Canal.

Guard dolphins generate few comments in Silverdale

UPDATE: Some opponents showed up at A Seattle hearing the next night, including activists bearing signs that said, “We will knit for dolphins.” I’ve added some information from the Los Angeles Times at the end of this entry.

In a public hearing last night, nobody stood up to protest the U.S. Navy’s use of guard dolphins and sea lions in Hood Canal.

My colleague Ed Friedrich, who wrote a story for today’s Kitsap Sun, pointed out that, unlike a “scoping” meeting two years ago, nobody came to the meeting knitting sweaters, hats or mittens for the dolphins.

According to the Navy, studies have shown that the dolphins can tolerate the cold water fairly well. To be sure, they will be asked to patrol for only a couple of hours at a time, after which they will return to a warm-water enclosure.

About 50 people showed up, and only two testified. I wouldn’t be surprised if some people chose to attend the Puget Sound-Georgia Basin Ecosystem Conference in Seattle instead of the hearing. But everyone will have another chance to testify tonight.

Judy Dicksion, who has worked as a volunteer observer of marine mammals in Hood Canal, said the Navy went out of its way to address her concerns.

Pete Schroeder, a veterinarian who specializes in marine mammals, said the Navy’s marine mammal research program is the best in the world. “These animals will be safe, and in my experience they will be happy,” he said about the guard dolphins and sea lions.

I know that a number of people have serious concerns about this program — including possible questions of morality, as demonstrated by comments on this blog.

The only other hearing on the environmental assessment will be tonight from 5 to 9 p.m. at Tyee High School, 4424 S. 188th Place in SeaTac. An open house is from 5 to 6:30 p.m. followed by a presentation and testimony after that.

It would be great to get a report from anyone who attends that hearing, and feel free to post your opinions here.

You can review the Navy’s program at the Web site called Swimmer Interdiction Security Program.

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Navy’s guard dolphins are under review at Bangor

The Navy is back to talking about using dolphins and sea lions for patrolling Hood Canal for enemy swimmers near the Navy’s submarine base at Bangor.

Navy officials say there’s really not much difference between using guard dogs to patrol a facility on land and using guard dolphins to patrol a facility on the water.

A story in today’s Kitsap Sun by Ed Friedrich indicates that the Navy is committed to carrying out some kind of “swimmer interdiction security program.” Four alternatives are up for public discussion: using California sea lions and Atlantic bottlenose dolphins; just sea lions; combat swimmers; remotely operated vehicles; and no change.

The preferred option is both dolphins and sea lions.

In one possible program, dolphins would be trained to drop a lighted buoy near an enemy swimmer. In another program, sea lions would learn to clamp a cuff on a swimmer’s leg so that the enemy could be reeled in like a big fish.

Ten years ago, the Progressive Animal Welfare Society and other environmental groups sued the Navy over its plans to deploy dolphins at Bangor. The Navy eventually agreed to withdraw the proposal until a full environmental review could be completed.

Two years ago, the Navy started through the environmental analysis, and PAWS prepared for another public campaign and possible legal action. The group’s primary objections centered on the cold water of Hood Canal, which is not the dolphins’ normal habitat, and the fact that the captive animals would never be free to swim in open waters except when on duty and under the control of humans.

For information, check Navy Web sites about the marine mammal program and analysis of the Bangor Swimmer Interdiction Security System.