Enviros, Tribes Sue to Protect Marine Mammals from U.S. Navy

SAN FRANCISCO, California, January 26, 2012 (ENS) – A coalition of conservation groups and American Indian tribes today sued the National Marine Fisheries Service, NMFS, for failing to protect whales, dolphins, porpoises, seals and sea lions from U.S. Navy warfare training exercises along the U.S. Pacific Coast.

The groups filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court for the District of Northern California challenging the Fisheries Service’s approval of the Navy’s training activities in its Northwest Training Range Complex.

The lawsuit calls on the federal agency to mitigate anticipated harm to marine mammals and biologically critical areas within the training range that stretches from Northern California and along the Oregon and Washington coasts to the Canadian border.

Sailors on the gangway of U.S. Navy submarine at the Bangor Submarine Base in Puget Sound, Washington (Photo courtesy U.S. Navy)

The Navy uses this area along the West Coast for training activities, including anti-submarine warfare exercises involving tracking aircraft and sonar; surface-to-air gunnery and missile exercises; air-to-surface bombing exercises; sink exercises; and testing for new weapons systems.

“These training exercises will harm dozens of protected species of marine mammals – Southern resident killer whales, blue whales, humpback whales, dolphins and porpoises – through the use of high-intensity mid-frequency sonar,” said Steve Mashuda, an attorney with the public interest environmental law firm Earthjustice, which is representing the groups.

“The Fisheries Service fell down on the job and failed to require the Navy to take reasonable and effective actions to protect them,” Mashuda said.

The plaintiff groups are: Center for Biological Diversity, Friends of the Earth, Friends of the San Juans, Natural Resources Defense Council, People For Puget Sound and the InterTribal Sinkyone Wilderness Council, a group of 10 federally recognized Northern California tribes.

“Since the beginning of time, the Sinkyone Council’s member tribes have gathered, harvested and fished for traditional cultural marine resources in this area, and they continue to carry out these subsistence ways of life, and their ceremonial activities along this tribal ancestral coastline,” said Priscilla Hunter, chairwoman and cofounder of the InterTribal Sinkyone Wilderness Council.

“Our traditional cultural lifeways, and our relatives such as the whales and many other species, will be negatively and permanently impacted by the Navy’s activities,” Hunter said.

In late 2010, the Fisheries Service gave the Navy a permit for five years of expanded naval activity that will harm, or “take,” marine mammals and other sealife.

The permit allows the Navy to conduct increased training exercises that can harm marine mammals and disrupt their migration, nursing, breeding or feeding, primarily as a result of harassment through exposure to the use of sonar.

Humpback whales off the coast of northern California, May 2005. (Photo by Scott Flinders)

“Both NMFS and the Navy have failed in their obligations to conduct government-to-government consultation with the Sinkyone Council and its member tribes regarding project impacts,” Hunter said.

“The Navy’s Northwest Training Range is the size of the state of California, yet not one square inch is off-limits to the most harmful aspects of naval testing and training activities,” said Zak Smith, staff attorney for Natural Resources Defense Council.

“We are asking for common sense measures to protect the critical wildlife that lives within the training range from exposure to life threatening effects of sonar,” said Smith. “Biologically rich areas like the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary should be protected.”

The groups point out that the Navy’s mid-frequency sonar has been implicated in mass strandings of marine mammals in the Bahamas, Greece, the Canary Islands, Spain and elsewhere. In 2004, during war games near Hawaii, the Navy’s sonar was implicated in a mass beaching of up to 200 melon-headed whales in Hanalei Bay on the island of Kauai.

In 2003, the USS Shoup, operating in Washington’s Haro Strait, exposed a group of endangered southern resident killer whales to mid-frequency sonar, causing the animals to stop feeding and attempt to flee.

“In 2003, NMFS learned firsthand the harmful impacts of Navy sonar in Washington waters when active sonar blasts distressed members of J pod, one of our resident pods of endangered orcas,” said Kyle Loring, staff attorney for Friends of the San Juans, a group of islands north of Seattle, Washington.

“Given this history, it is particularly distressing that NMFS approved the Navy’s use of deafening noises in areas where whales and dolphins use their acute hearing to feed, navigate, and raise their young, even in designated sanctuaries and marine reserves,” said Loring.

“Whales and other marine mammals don’t stand a chance against the Navy. Blasting sonar nearly as loud as explosives into the marine environment can disturb and injure whales.” said Miyoko Sakashita, oceans director at the Center for Biological Diversity.

The Navy’s mitigation plan for sonar use relies on visual detection of whales or other marine mammals by sailors with binoculars who stand watch on the decks of ships. If they see marine mammals in the vicinity of an exercise, the Navy is supposed to cease sonar use.

“Visual detection can miss anywhere from 25 percent to 95 percent of the marine mammals in an area,” said Heather Trim, director of policy for People for Puget Sound. “It’s particularly unreliable in rough seas or in bad weather. We learn more every day about where whales and other mammals are most likely to be found. We want NMFS to put that knowledge to use to ensure that the Navy’s training avoids those areas when marine mammals are most likely there.”

The litigation is not intended to halt the Navy’s exercises, but asks the court to require the Fisheries Service to reassess the permits using the latest science and to order the Navy to stay out of biologically critical areas at least at critical times of the year.

Marcie Keever of Friends of the Earth said, “It has become increasingly clear from recent research that the endangered Southern Resident killer whale community uses coastal waters within the Navy’s training range to find salmon during the fall and winter months. NMFS has failed in its duty to assure that the Navy is not pushing the whales closer to extinction.”

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2012. All rights reserved.