Navy and Marine Mammals: Fact vs. Myth

Dolphins and Navy ship

Sacramento Bee
Navy Should Find Alternatives To Threatening Endangered Species

Navy Response (12/31/13)

I’m a Navy public affairs officer. There are some points in the 27 December editorial titled, “Navy Should Find Alternatives To Threatening Endangered Species” that need clarification.

1. While the Navy does request authorization for 155 marine mammal mortalities for training and testing off Hawaii and Southern California, we ultimately do not expect any marine mammals to be harmed. The best available science indicates that the vast majority of impacts to marine mammals will be behavioral responses which will not result in any physical injury. There are zero marine mammal mortalities predicted by our computer modeling for sonar use in these areas. Out of an abundance of caution we do request mortalities for beaked whales, due to their apparent sensitivity to sonar, as part of our permit requests even though the science does not show mortalities are likely.

2. There is no evidence sonar has killed or caused direct physical injury to marine mammals. In the few cases where sonar has been associated with a stranding event, the animals’ injuries have always been found to be a result of the beaching event rather than the sound source causing ear or tissue damage.

3. U.S. Navy sonar has been linked to a small number of marine mammal stranding events over the past 15 years, leading to fewer than 40 mortalities. The Navy takes precautions when using sonar and works with the National Marine Fisheries Service to ensure that our activities comply with the law and do not have major impacts on marine mammal populations.

4. Regarding monitoring, bear in mind that each and every time Navy Sailors see a dead or injured marine mammal at sea, the Navy is required to report it to the National Marine Fisheries Service. If there were large numbers of marine mammals popping up dead in the wake of training and testing activities, especially in near-shore areas, the Navy and other users of the marine environment would see those impacts (and wildlife regulatory agencies would be made aware). The reality is that during the past five years, only four dolphin deaths, which occurred during a single explosives training event in 2011, are known to have occurred as a result of Navy activities. Since that time the Navy has modified our explosives training safety procedures to be more protective of marine mammals.

5. During the melon-headed whale event in 2004 in Hanalei Bay, only one whale–an emaciated calf–went ashore. It was an aggregation event where the animals milled about in the Bay. Similar events have occurred elsewhere in the world in areas where no sonar was in use.

6. Far from disregarding new science, the Navy is a world leader in developing new science. We have considered numerous studies as part of our analysis for this training and testing, and these and other studies will be also considered as part of our adaptive management process with the National Marine Fisheries Service. The Navy cannot guarantee that our activities will have zero effects on marine mammals. However, for that very reason, we justify our requirements to, and ultimately receive our permits from, the National Marine Fisheries Service. These permits can only be issued if our proposed activities will have a negligible impact on marine life. We will continue to conduct realistic training and testing to accomplish our mission, while being respectful of the marine environment now and into the future.

Kenneth Hess

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