Protecting The Last Right Whale Nursery

Today NRDC and other environmental groups filed a lawsuit challenging the Navy’s plans to build an Undersea Warfare Training Range off the coast of Jacksonville, Florida.  The lawsuit against the Navy and the National Marine Fisheries Service contests the reckless rush to construct a $100 million training range without adequately assessing the environmental impacts, considering a full range of alternatives, or completing the most basic surveys to determine the presence of marine wildlife.    

The Navy’s credo to build first and think later is particularly careless here, because it plans to construct the training range right next to the only known area where the critically endangered North Atlantic right whales give birth and nurture their young.  There are only about 300 North Atlantic right whales left in the world.  I’ve written before about right whales and the Navy’s scientifically unsound proposal.   

Science tells us that the loss of even a single North Atlantic right whale could threaten the survival of the entire species. Constructing a training range near the only waters where the North Atlantic right whales give birth and nurture their young will only exacerbate the already tenuous grip this species has on survival.

Yet the Navy is charging ahead with the construction of a permanent training range that will introduce a triple threat into these waters: sonar exposure, collisions with ships and entanglement in debris.  The training range will be 500 square nautical miles in size and will contain hundreds of acoustic devices connected to each other – and dangling up to 25 feet from the bottom of the ocean – by hundreds of miles of underwater cable (think: a giant obstacle course roughly the size of Maui).  

The Navy and National Marine Fisheries Service candidly admit that they must conduct “additional environmental analyses” before operating the range.  In fact, the Navy only started surveying the area in February 2009.  None of this survey data was included in either the Navy or the National Marine Fisheries Service’s decision making, and none of the surveys will be completed before the Navy begins construction of the range.  By the time the surveys are actually completed, it will be too little too late.  Once the Navy gets its metaphorical foot in the door, what’s to stop it from barreling right through?  Who is going to tell the Navy that it can’t use the range it just spent $100 million in constructing? 

The Navy plans to conduct sonar training exercises year round, including those months when the North Atlantic right whale mothers and calves are present in the calving grounds.  But mothers and their calves are particularly vulnerable to ship strikes and noise disturbances.  Mothers and calves are more likely to remain on or near the surface of the water due to the limited lung capacity of newborns, but their dark coloration and lack of a dorsal fin make them difficult to detect – and easy to hit.  North Atlantic right whales exposed to sonar operations face an even greater risk of being struck by ships.  A recent study found that the animals rapidly ascended to just below the surface after being exposed to sound, making them, in the words of one scientist, “vulnerable but not visible.”  Despite the real possibility of increased ship strikes due to its sonar operations, the Navy completely ignored this study. 

The Navy’s refusal to incorporate this study (and other relevant studies) into its analysis coupled with its failure to conduct necessary surveys violates federal law, which requires federal agencies to fully analyze all the environmental impacts and reasonable alternatives of a project before authorization.  Federal law also prohibits the “irreversible and irretrievable commitment of resources” that would allow for another, more protective alternative.  Constructing a range without considering the operational impacts is exactly the type of irreversible commitment of resources the law is designed to prevent.

So what’s the rush?  The Navy even admitted in its Environmental Impact Statement that it doesn’t need this training range to certify the readiness of its sailors.  The Navy has nothing to lose by waiting until the federally required assessments are finished except opportunity – the opportunity to obey the law, properly assess the environmental impacts of the range, and conduct the required surveys.  The whales, on the other hand, have everything to lose.