Sounding Off: Navy Severely Impacts Marine Life with Ocean Noise

Many marine animals—like this mother and baby sperm whale— use sound to find food and interpret their environment. Flooding their world with intense noise directly interferes with activities necessary for survival. - Photo by Reunion Underwater photographyThe U.S. Navy has requested authorization from the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to allow it to take (harass, harm or kill) many tens of millions of marine mammals incidental to thousands of training and testing activities in the Atlantic Fleet Training and Testing Study Area (AFTT). This massive area includes all the waters along the eastern U.S. coast from Maine to the Gulf of Mexico, and more than 200 miles out to sea (into international waters) for some activities. It is home to a variety of marine animals, including 45 marine mammal species. The Navy has similar requests to NMFS for two other massive areas, including the Hawaii Range Complex (3.2 million square nautical miles) and the Southern California Range Complex (120,000 square nautical miles).

All 45 marine mammal species could be impacted, including those listed under the Endangered Species Act—namely, North Atlantic right whales, humpback whales, sei whales, blue whales, bowhead whales, and sperm whales. Animals present in the range areas are at risk of death and injury resulting from the huge number of naval training activities planned for the five-year period, involving multiple surface ships, submarines, and aircraft. These exercises—singly or combined—will disrupt significant biological behaviors and will prove fatal to many animals exposed to active sonar blasts, underwater detonations, ship strikes, live firing, and/or pile driving.

The Navy admits that its activities will affect many millions of animals, yet it’s primary strategy for limiting the potentially devastating impacts is to use lookouts—even at night!—to scan for animals, and to limit activities (e.g., reducing active sonar levels) when animals get too close. As AWI and others have repeatedly pointed out in our comments to the Navy and NMFS for these operations, even on clear days, detecting marine mammals on a vast moving sea from a moving platform is difficult. Instead we believe the Navy should significantly alter its planned operations so as to—at minimum—limit proposed activities to periods of good visibility, reduce the number of exercises, avoid biologically sensitive habitats (while also establishing meaningful buffer zones), and vastly improve and expand mitigation methods.

In March, the California State Coastal Commission unanimously objected to the Navy’s Southern Californian activities and suggested mitigation measures similar to those we support, which the Navy rejected. If the Navy decides to carry on regardless, the state could sue the Navy—as it did in 2007 over its use of active sonar.