Coastal Commission to Hear Harmful Navy Proposal on Weds.

On Wednesday, the Navy will come before the California Coastal Commission, claiming that its training plans for Southern California are consistent with the state’s coastal protection law. They most certainly are not.

Over the next five years, the Navy intends to detonate tens of thousands of underwater explosives, and run tens of thousands of hours of high-intensity sonar exercises, off Southern California, where much of the Pacific Fleet is homeported. These activities may be necessary for training; for whales and other marine mammals in the region, however, the environmental consequences are profound. Under the Navy’s proposal, these species would suffer more than 2,500 cases of permanent injury, more than 1 million instances of temporary hearing loss (a significant problem for species that are dependent on sound),  and more than 10 million disruptions in feeding, nursing, and other vital behavior. And these are the Navy’s estimates, which experts at the U.S. Marine Mammal Commission and elsewhere have questioned.

You would think, given those numbers, that the Navy would make every effort to mitigate the effects of its exercises, but therein lies the rub. It is not enough that the Navy has failed to respond to new research showing that certain of its activities are more harmful than previously thought. To make matters worse, the proposal it brings before the Commission, like other offerings from this administration, would undo many of the environmental protections it already employs.

For example, if the Navy gets its way, it would open up blue whale foraging habitat off San Diego—an area that sees some of the largest numbers of that endangered species anywhere on the planet—to sonar training and major Navy exercises. And it would eliminate two feeding refuges for a small population of beaked whales that its sonar exercises repeatedly chases away. All of these areas have generally been closed to sonar and explosives training since 2015, when the Navy, having been found to violate three environmental laws in conceiving its last proposal, agreed that it could do more to protect the most vulnerable species.

Remarkably, even as it asks for the Commission’s sign-off, the Navy is on Capitol Hill, trying to undermine the country’s leading statute for whale conservation. If its bid to amend the Marine Mammal Protection Act succeeds, the Navy would no longer undergo periodic review and permitting for the serious harm its training activities cause marine mammals. And California’s rights—and those of every other state—to at least review the Navy’s future proposals would be swept away in the bargain, since it is the Marine Mammal Protection Act’s permitting process that triggers state review.

Over the last ten years, the Coastal Commission has twice reviewed the Navy’s activities in Southern California, and twice found them inconsistent with the state’s coastal program. The Commission has repeatedly tried to bridge the gap, identifying mitigation measures and setting its staff to negotiate; the Navy’s approach has been to give nothing and to take extreme, uncompromising positions that the courts have found absurd. Conservation and military readiness can and should be compatible. The Navy should stop trying to roll back environmental protections and start acting like the ocean steward it claims to be.