LIHUE — The environmental law group Earthjustice is asking for better survey methods for finding marine mammals in target areas for military weapons testing around Kauai.
The subject was breached in a February letter of authorization request from the United States Air Force to the National Marine Fisheries Service for incidental take of marine mammals over the next five years while they test long-range weapons.
Testing will include dropping more than 100 bombs every year for five years at a depth of 15,240 feet, about 50 miles off the coast of the Pacific Missile Range Facility.
According to the request, those bombs could cause permanent hearing loss for 36 animals, temporary hearing loss for 382 animals and could change the behavior patterns of 219 animals, based on population densities.
The Air Force is planning to use aerial surveys to decide if marine mammals are present in an area before dropping bombs and missiles into the ocean.
“Even in the best conditions, aerial surveys do a poor job of detecting whether there are marine mammals in the target area,” said Earthjustice lawyer David Henkin. “In rough sea conditions, they are practically worthless.”
The Earthjustice letter asks the NMFS to require the Air Force to supplement aerial surveys with real-time monitoring of marine mammal locations using the existing hydrophone network at PMRF.
That network can detect whether whales and dolphins hidden from view might be in the target area, according to a news release from Earthjustice.
Members of Kohola Leo, Kauai’s cetacean conservation group, have also criticized the Air Force proposal, citing concerns about the impacts of the bombings on ocean wildlife.
“We are very concerned that the impacts of the local fishing industry and the tour boat industry would be severe and were not given adequate analysis in the Environmental Assessment,” Kohola Leo members said in public comments on the Air Force’s proposal. “This bombing would close the ocean to many people’s livelihoods.”
In February, Gordon LaBedz of Kohola Leo told TGI that the courts were the next stage for the struggle between environmental activists and the military.
“The only way to stop them from getting permits to kill whales and dolphins is to sue them,” LaBedz said. “When we do, we usually win, but the conservation community only has so much money for attorneys.”
Kohola Leo also suggests the use of PMRF hydrophones to detect whale presence in their public comments about the Air Force proposal and said the proposal’s environmental assessment didn’t assess the possibility of using smoke bombs instead of live weapons.
“Another important impact that was not looked at was humpback whales breeding and mating,” LaBedz said. “An alternative time in summer would be preferable.”
The Air Force did not respond to requests for comment.
In an article at military.com, Whitlow Au, who studies the behavior of marine life, said determining the effects of the sounds from weapons testing on marine animals is a complicated process.
“We don’t even know the intensity of the sound that reaches an animal caused by a missile launch,” said Au, chief scientist of the Marine Mammal Research Program at the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology at the University of Hawaii.
If a whale in the area dives when a missile is being launched, that could be interpreted as a reaction to the launch, or it could just be natural behavior, he explained in the article.
Au and his students have applied for their own five-year permit with the NMFS to study the effects of noise behavior on whales and dolphins.
In February, Au told TGI he’s not convinced weapons testing negatively impacts marine mammals.
“A launch sound would be, I think, not very intense because the whale might be a mile or half a mile offshore,” Au said.
“That’s about as close as they’ll come to the PMRF launch site and the level of sounds that reach the whale might be relatively low.”
The training exercises are imperative to the nation’s safety, Au said, and the highest priority should be finding ways to train troops without harming sea life.
“These groups of people have to learn how to work together in a collaborative-type relationship,” he said.
The comment period on the proposal ended earlier this month.
More than 170,000 people signed a petition to stop Air Force weapons testing off the coast of Kauai, set to begin in September.