Use of Sonar That Spooked Orcas to Be Limited in Sound, Navy Says

kitsapsun.com
Use of Sonar That Spooked Orcas to Be Limited in Sound, Navy Says

By Christopher Dunagan
Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Within the Puget Sound region, the Navy will no longer conduct training exercises with the kind of sonar that sent killer whales scampering during an exercise in 2003, according to Navy officials.

National Marine Fisheries Service has proposed issuing the Navy a permit to use sonar during training off Washington’s Pacific Coast, but not within inland waterways. Navy officials confirm that they never requested authorization for training in waters east of Cape Flattery, where the Strait of Juan de Fuca meets the Pacific Ocean.

Environmental advocates welcomed the news that killer whales and other marine mammals would not be subjected to the loud pings of sonar within the confines of Puget Sound. But some are troubled by other aspects of the “incidental take permit” proposed by the fisheries service.

“It is absolutely important to be paying attention to all of what the Navy is doing,” said Fred Felleman, Northwest consultant for Friends of the Earth. “They are asking for up to a 10-percent expansion in other areas.”

The use of mid-frequency active sonar by the Navy has been associated with the deaths of deep-diving beaked whales in five incidents in Europe and the Bahamas over the past 12 years, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service.

The proposed permit for training off the coast would allow the “take” of 26 species of marine mammals. Take can include death, injury or harassment. Under the permit, the Navy would be required to take measures designed to avoid permanent injury to the animals, though other levels of harassment would be allowed. Measures include actively searching for marine mammals before and during an exercise.

Michael Jasny of the Natural Resources Defense Council said the book is not closed on Navy training in Puget Sound, because the Navy could apply for a permit in the future.

“Puget Sound is a highly vulnerable area,” Jasny said. “The best and clearest solution would be for the Navy to propose Puget Sound as a protected area or an exclusion area.”

According to a written statement issued by Navy Region Northwest: “There is no purported use of sonar for training purposes in Puget Sound. The Navy has not trained with active sonar in Puget Sound since 2003.”

In May 2003, the Navy guided missile destroyer USS Shoup passed through the San Juan Islands emitting sonar pings so loud that whale watchers could hear it through the hulls of their boats several miles away. Killer whale experts in the area said orcas off the west side of San Juan Island appeared confused, moving one way then another. A minke whale and numerous porpoises were reported fleeing rapidly away from the sound.

Permanent injury to the marine mammals, if any, was never confirmed, and no solid link was established to several harbor porpoises found dead about that time.

Discontinuing training in Puget Sound apparently does not eliminate all uses of sonar, however, according to the Navy’s written statement.

“Any use of high- or mid-frequency active sonar for training purposes in Puget Sound would be beyond the scope of this permit,” the statement says. “However, outside of this permit, active sonar is used within Puget Sound for safety and navigation; testing; maintenance; and research, development, test and evaluation (RDT&E).”

The RDT&E activities are subject to a separate incidental take permit for the Naval Undersea Warfare Center, based at Keyport. That proposed permit also proposes measures to avoid problems for marine mammals.

Jasny said he is troubled by the use of sonar within Puget Sound under those exceptions.

In April of this year, the fast-attack submarine USS San Francisco left Bremerton following repairs and was heard emitting loud sonar pings in the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

Val Veirs, a resident of San Juan Island, maintains a series of underwater microphones called hydrophones. By his calculations, Veirs said the sound intensity was on a par with the Shoup.

“If there had been killer whales in the area, it certainly could have had an effect,” he said. “It probably would have caused flight reactions among multiple species of marine mammals.”

Since the activity occurred from about 6:30 p.m. until 3 a.m. the next morning, the Navy would have been unable to search the waters visually for the presence of marine mammals, he said.

The San Francisco sonar event falls under “safety and navigation,” said Sheila Murray, spokeswoman for Navy Region Northwest.

Jim Lecky, director of the Office of Protected Resources within the National Marine Fisheries Service, said it was his understanding that 13 environmental impact statements, either completed or under way, will cover all Navy activities with potential harm to marine mammals. He was not sure how the Navy intended to address potentially harmful sonar activities outside established training ranges.

Felleman said the Marine Mammal Protection Act requires consideration of the “cumulative impacts” of all activities that affect marine mammals — and some activities seem to be slipping through the cracks.

“There is clearly a need for a broader-picture discussion that looks at all these take permits,” Felleman said. “NMFS should be obligated to enumerate all the activities that could be harmful.”

On Tuesday, the agency announced the publication of proposed rules for protecting Southern Resident killer whales from whale watchers, particularly in the San Juan Islands. It appears, however, that no announcements were made (except for publication in the Federal Register) about proposed rules for protecting all marine mammals from Navy sonar and demolition activities.

For a discussion about water-related issues, check out the blog Watching Our Water Ways at kitsapsun.com.
E.W. Scripps Co.
© 2007 Kitsap Sun

~ by fredfelleman on July 30, 2009.

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