Our spring subscription drive is underway! Click here and become a subscriber.
From the March 28, 2012 edition
By Daniel Mintz
Press Staff Writer
The U.S. Navy is seeking to renew its permitting for training and testing activities off the West Coast as environmental groups advance a lawsuit challenging its current permit.
Navy officials and specialists were at Eureka’s Wharfinger building on March 22 for an open house event that’s part of the scoping process for a new five-year permit’s environmental review.
In December of 2010, a large audience gathered in the same place to oppose the Navy’s current permit, which ends in 2015. Last week’s event marks an early phase in the preparation of an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for another five-year permit to conduct sonar, weapons and tactical training and to test new systems in an off-coast area that stretches from Point Arena to Puget Sound in Washington.
Several local environmentalists were at last week’s open house, including Peter Galvin of the Center for Biological Diversity, which has joined other groups in a federal court lawsuit against the National Marine Fisheries Service’s current permitting of the Navy’s offshore activities.
“The Navy likes to point to very low numbers of mortality proven to be linked to the use of sonar in particular,” Galvin said. The Navy is “grossly understating” the impacts of its activities, he continued, particularly on marine mammals.
He said continued use of active sonar will result in high numbers of marine mammal deaths and is known to be associated with beaching and strandings. Galvin questioned the effectiveness of using lookouts and passive sonar to detect the presence of marine mammals such as whales in training areas.
“Surely we can come up with better mechanisms for detecting marine mammals than the military asserting that all it can do is keep and ear out and keep an eye out,” said Galvin.
Roy Sokolowski, a Navy acoustic and operations specialist, said the current permit allows 108 hours of mid-frequency active sonar use and that amount isn’t expected to be increased in the upcoming permit. He said that’s a minimal amount compared to Southern California, where 1,977 hours of mid-frequency sonar have been authorized.
The use of high-frequency sonar training in Puget Sound will be introduced as a part of new homeland security exercises, however. Sokolowski said the use of explosives in the training area ranges from gun rounds and small arms fire to bombs but “very little” of it is done.
Most of the training and testing will happen off the Washington coast. Offshore areas of Humboldt County and Northern California will mostly be used as north-south transit routes, said Sokolowski.
Asked about the impacts of active sonar, Dr. Joy Lapseritis, a Navy biologist, said they can be controlled. “There is no evidence to suggest that there are high numbers of mortalities associated with sonar events and sonar is not directly responsible for strandings of marine mammals,” she continued.
Lapseritis said that if a marine mammal is detected within 1,000 yards of a sonar source, it’s turned down and “we are reducing the potential for a permanent physical effect on a marine mammal to pretty much zero.”
Most of the impacts to marine mammals will be behavioral or temporary, Lapseritis added, and “a marine mammal would have to be very, very close to a sonar source – close enough to get struck – before it would have a permanent effect on its hearing.” John Mosher, the training area’s project manager, said the current permit has included one cycle of reporting on impacts to the National Marine Fisheries Service, from Nov. 2010 to May 2011. During that time, impacts were “far below” what had been estimated because the extent of training was much less than what had been permitted, he continued. Mosher said commentary fielded at the open house ranged from concerns about marine mammal impacts and impacts to the marine environment to questions on how commercial fisheries could be affected.
He said people also commented on the pollution caused by fired off weapons rounds and explosives. “Our policy is to minimize it,” Mosher said, adding that the Navy is developing “more environmentally safe materials and biodegradable materials.”
An initial public comment period ends on April 27. A draft EIS is expected to be released in the fall of 2013 and a forum on it will be held in Eureka.