Navy Decision Dodges Environmental Protections for Endangered Right Whales

Plans proceeding without survey of whale calving grounds


Katie Renshaw, Earthjustice, (202) 667-4500, ext.220
Catherine Wannamaker, SELC, (404) 521-9900
Sierra Weaver, Defenders of Wildlife, (202) 772-3274
Kristen Eastman, Humane Society of the US, (301) 721-6440
Taryn Kiekow, NRDC, (310) 434-2300 

Today’s decision by the U.S. Navy to proceed with construction of its Undersea Warfare Training Range without first obtaining the required approvals for the whole project located near the only known calving grounds for endangered right whales attempts an end run around environmental protections, according to public interest groups. The groups concerned by today’s decision include Defenders of Wildlife, Earthjustice, The Humane Society of the United States, Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Southern Environmental Law Center.

Announced today, the Navy’s plans would begin construction of the range at a site adjacent to the North Atlantic right whale calving grounds and in a protected area for commercially valuable snapper-grouper. Yet the Navy has not completed surveys of whales in the area and not obtained authorization from the National Marine Fisheries Service for its operations on the range.

“The Navy’s decision to pass off an undersea warfare training range as just a construction project is an obvious dodge of environmental protections for right whales and commercially valuable marine life,” said Catherine Wannamaker, an attorney with Southern Environmental Law Center that has been closely monitoring the process for over three years. “Proceeding with construction locks in public funds and location before the range is evaluated and approved for ship traffic, sonar, and debris near the only known nursery for right whales and within areas critical to commercially valuable marine life.”

Last year, the groups submitted comments to the U.S. Navy outlining concerns regarding the proposed Undersea Warfare Training Range on behalf of 22 public interest nonprofits. As part of the planned training, Navy ships — exempt from speed restrictions recently implemented by the government to protect endangered right whales — would pass through the calving ground when traveling between the bases and proposed training area. The Navy plans to conduct 470 annual exercises on the training range with up to three vessels and two aircraft engaged in simulated warfare. Ships and aircraft would travel to the range from Mayport, FL, and Kings Bay, GA.

“There is no room for error with right whales,” said Sierra Weaver, attorney for Defenders of Wildlife. “Rather than push forward with a decision based on limited information and limited analysis about possible effects to this species, the Navy needs to go back and do it right.”

Ship strikes are the single largest cause of death for right whales. During 2006, five whales were killed or injured by ship strikes or entanglements in an endangered population. Low flying aircraft are also a source of harassment to right whale mothers and calves which use these shallow, calm waters as a nursing ground each winter.

“The Navy selected the worst possible site for this range. These waters are home to a stunning array of biodiversity, including some of the ocean’s most threatened creatures: the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale, blue whales, and leatherback and loggerhead sea turtles,” said Katie Renshaw, an attorney with Earthjustice. “Before this project goes any further, we need to know how it will affect these animals. That’s the law.”

The Navy’s plans include deployment of non-explosive exercise torpedoes, target submarine simulators, and various forms of active and passive sonar. An assortment of debris will be introduced into the area and left behind as a result of training activities, including 3,000 sonobuoys per year, exercise torpedoes and control wires, parachute assemblages, and ballast.

“It is irresponsible of the Navy to overlook the risk that the construction and operation of this project poses to endangered whales and sea turtles,” said Sharon Young, field director of The Humane Society.

Entanglements are another known cause of death for endangered right whales and sea turtles. According to scientists, approximately 10 to 30 percent of the right whale population is entangled each year. Once entangled, animals have trouble eating, breathing or swimming, all of which can have fatal results.

Ingestion of marine debris traveling the ocean’s currents and littering beaches is also a known, potentially fatal threat to endangered sea turtles.

According to its own documents, environmental impacts were not part of the Navy’s criteria in selecting a site for its warfare training range. Despite the state of Georgia’s objection to the proposal and concerns raised by environmental groups and the state of Florida, the Navy rejected numerous recommended measures that could have lessened the environmental impact of its activities. Although the Navy does not plan to use sonar within the critical habitat, it has not proposed any mitigation for sonar likely to travel from the training range into the calving ground during the calving season.

“The Navy’s plan to build a sonar training range next to right whale critical habitat without incorporating relevant survey data into its decision is like building a house next to a river without checking to see if it’s in the floodplain — potentially disastrous,” said Taryn Kiekow, attorney, Natural Resources Defense Council. “The Navy has fast-tracked the planning process for the range, and in the process disregarded environmental laws designed to prohibit this from happening.”

While the Navy states that construction will not take place during the calving season, the Record of Decision does not analyze the impacts of operations on the range to right whales and other endangered species. Before the full project can proceed and operations can begin, the U.S. Navy must receive a letter of authorization from the National Marine Fisheries Service for harassment of these species.

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