LIHUE — The U.S. Navy says its training and testing activities could inadvertently kill hundreds of whales and dolphins — and injure thousands more — over the next five years.
The information was compiled from a pair of environmental impact statements released Aug. 30. The studies included waters off the East Coast, the Gulf of Mexico, Southern California and Hawaii from 2014 to 2018.
Most of the deaths — as many as 155 off Hawaii and Southern California — would come from detonating underwater explosives, while some could be caused by sonar testing or animals being struck by ships.
Gordon LaBedz, a founding member of the national Surfrider Foundation and treasurer of the Kauai Chapter, said the reason the Navy conducts EIS studies at all stems from a successful lawsuit by Kauai Surfrider in 2006 over RIMPAC.
RIMPAC, or Rim of the Pacific, is the world’s largest international maritime wartime exercise, hosted by the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Fleet.
“Ever since (the lawsuit) they’ve been doing EISs for their training exercises because it has such a tremendous impact on the ocean,” LaBedz said.
Mark Matsunaga, public affairs officer for the Navy’s Pacific Fleet, said the numbers in the study were generated using complicated computer modeling and represent the worst case scenario.
“One of the key things to keep in mind is we don’t expect to affect anywhere near those numbers,” he said.
LaBedz said he isn’t convinced.
“I think they’re probably underestimating it,” he said. “Most of these whales don’t come close to shore. Their bodies aren’t going to wash up and you can do a head count.”
In addition to deaths, the EIS report said the activities off Hawaii and Southern California could cause 2,039 serious injuries, 1.86 million temporary injuries and 7.7 million instances of behavioral change.
When asked what could be considered a behavioral change, Matsunaga used the analogy of a car driving past a herd of cows grazing in a field. Every cow that stopped eating and looked up at the vehicle would fall into that category, he said.
LaBedz said sonar can severely damage a whale’s hearing, either temporarily or permanently.
“A deaf whale is a dead whale,” he said. “Without their hearing they can’t eat and they can’t navigate.”
Off the East Coast, computer models show the naval training and testing could lead to the deaths of 186 whales and dolphins, as well as 11,267 serious injuries, 1.89 million minor injuries, such as hearing loss, and 20 million behavioral changes, which includes swimming in a different direction.
While the environmental impact statements are new, Matsunaga said the “lion’s share” of the activities analyzed and described in them are not.
“We’ve been training and testing in Hawaii for more than 60 years,” he said.
“There are new things that come up that we have to test and then start training on, but by and large … these are not new activities.”
Matsunaga said environmental impact statements are hard to understand and added that there are a lot of people making more of the numbers than they should.
“There’s a misconception that there’s Navy ships out there doing this stuff all the time, and that’s quite far from reality” he said.
The Navy said it developed the estimated numbers of deaths and injuries by totaling the hours it will test and practice with sonar, torpedoes, missiles, explosives and other equipment over five years. Experts then combine the data with what’s known about the marine mammals and use computer modeling.
“What the numbers don’t take into account is movement of the animals or the mitigation measures that the Navy uses,” Matsunaga said.
The studies were done ahead of the Navy applying to the National Marine Fisheries Service for permits for its activities. The Navy said that it if hadn’t done so and was later found to have harmed marine mammals, it would be found in violation of federal environmental law and have to stop its training and testing.
LaBedz said the Navy is doing terrible things to the ocean environment, both with sonar and underwater explosives.
“Nobody thinks about the ocean and the threats that it’s under,” he said. “And to me, the biggest threat the ocean is under is the U.S. Navy and the military machine. It’s a close tie with the fishing industry.”
Kauai District Fisheries Biologist Don Heacock said changing the behavior of an endangered species is considered a “taking” under the Endangered Species Act.
However, Heacock said it seems if the federal government says it’s for national security, “everything goes right out the window.”
“It’s pretty disturbing,” he said of the recent Navy reports.
Rear Adm. Kevin Slates, the Navy’s energy and environmental readiness division director, told reporters the Navy uses simulators where possible but sailors must test and train in real-life conditions.
“Without this realistic testing and training, our sailors can’t develop or maintain the critical skills they need or ensure the new technologies can be operated effectively,” Slates said in a conference call with reporters last week.
Michael Jasny, senior policy analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the Navy was underestimating the effect of its activities on marine mammals, which he described as “simply not sustainable.”
Jasny pointed to a study by government and private sector scientists published just last month in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society showing mid-frequency active sonar can disrupt blue whale feeding. The study says feeding disruptions and the movement of whales away from their prey could significantly affect the health of individual whales and the overall health of baleen whale populations.
“These smaller disruptions short of death are themselves accumulating into something like death for species and death for populations,” Jasny said.
In July 2004, two years before Surfrider’s lawsuit, the Navy’s sonar exercises came under scrutiny after 200 distressed melon-headed whales were seen swimming close to the beach in Hanalei Bay.
Attention quickly turned toward a six-ship Navy fleet 20 miles offshore that had been conducting sonar exercises that same morning as part of RIMPAC.
• Chris D’Angelo, environmental reporter, can be reached at 245-0441 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
• The Associated Press contributed to this story.