Navy and Marine Mammals: Fact vs. Myth

Dolphins and Navy ship

The Navy Knows Sonar Will Hurt and Kill Dolphins, Plans on It Anyway

Navy Response (10/11/13)

I’m a public affairs officer with the U.S. Navy. I want to point out that the headline above, while scary to read, is inaccurate. Based on over 60 years of similar training and testing in these areas with minimal impacts on marine life, we do not expect marine mammals to die or be injured as a result of our activities.

To be clear, our environmental impact statements (EISs) and related documents do show estimates of injuries and mortalities. However, these estimates are based on computer modeling and analysis that use very conservative assumptions–meaning that the effects they predict on marine mammals are far greater than they are likely to be in reality. Even this conservative modeling predicts ZERO marine mammal mortalities from sonar.

In an abundance of caution, we do request a small number of mortalities from sonar for beaked whales, because beaked whales have been shown to be more sensitive to sonar than other whale species. While we actually do not expect any beaked whale mortalities from sonar, we want to ensure we remain in compliance with our permits if the worst should happen. It is important to note that there have never been beaked whale strandings due to Navy activities in the areas covered by these EISs. For all sonar training, we also use protective measures developed with the National Marine Fisheries Service to reduce the potential for mariner mammals to be affected.

There has only been one case (March 2011, in which dolphins swam into the zone of an explosives testing event) where marine mammals have been killed by Navy bombing activities. This incident resulted in the Navy reviewing our procedures and developing mitigation measures tailored to this type of event.

Each time we use explosives at sea, we conduct marine mammal monitoring before, during and after the event as part of our standard mitigation. Every single time we see an injured marine mammal, we report it to wildlife regulatory agencies through an extensive marine mammal stranding reporting network.

The article mentions two studies. One study suggests that blue whales may swim away or stop feeding when exposed to various sounds under some conditions. What isn’t often reported in the press is that not all of the whales reacted to the sounds, and that many of the whales that did react only had brief changes in behavior and quickly reverted to normal activities.

The other study mentioned suggests that beaked whale populations may be declining off the west coast of the U.S., and that the decline could be related to Navy sonar use. However, the study also mentions other potential causes for the possible decline and does not consider independent scientific monitoring data that shows two to five times higher Cuvier beaked whale densities on the Navy’s Southern California Range Complex (where sonar is frequently used) than the surveys upon which the study is based.

The Navy cares about marine mammals, and strives to be a responsible steward of the environment as we conduct our activities. We continue to be a world leader in marine mammal research , and to work with the National Marine Fisheries Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to obtain permits for our at – sea training and testing.

Kenneth Hess

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