Feds Give Navy Green Light to Kill Whales and Dolphins

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The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS aka NOAA Fisheries) has announced the finalization of rules governing the Navy’s activities along the east coast and in the Gulf of Mexico for the next five years. In a Bizzaro-World move, with these rules the agency charged with protecting whales, dolphins, and other marine mammals gives its stamp of approval to Navy training and testing activities that will harm millions of marine mammals, killing many. While not entirely unexpected, it’s still disappointing to see NMFS walk away from the one measure that would significantly reduce impacts to marine mammals: keeping harmful training and testing activities away from ocean areas dense with whales and dolphins.

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While the Final Rule is not yet available to review (the website link provided by the agency doesn’t have the Final Rule), it appears from NMFS’ release that it has adopted the course laid out in its Proposed Rule.  There, it found that millions of instances of harm to the area’s whales and dolphins (including habitat abandonment, temporary hearing loss, and in some instances permanent hearing loss, injury to internal organs, and death) constitutes a “negligible impact” to the species harmed.

And once again, NMFS is finding that that the most severe impacts (temporary and permanent hearing loss and death) can be “minimized” by a Navy lookout regime that is wholly inadequate and ineffectual.

Such nonsense would be funny if it wasn’t so tragic. Scientific research developed over the last five years (the last time NMFS authorized Navy training and testing in the area) shows Navy training and testing activities are harming marine mammals far more than previously known. NRDC recently won a lawsuit against NMFS for ignoring that science when authorizing Navy training and testing in the Pacific Northwest.

While it has taken that science into account here, it only does so on the assessment side of the equation (yep, millions of instances of harm), not on the how-do-we-limit-that-harm side of the equation. Instead of spurring the agency to set aside areas dense with marine mammals where Navy activities could be limited, it doubles down on the Navy’s mitigation scheme—centered on the ability of lookouts to detect whales and dolphins and then limit the use of sonar when they get too close. Unfortunately, as courts have already found, the lookout/shutdown scheme is ineffective: the detection rate for marine mammals even in the best of conditions hovers around 10 percent (sorry 90 percent!) and the science shows serious harms, like  temporary hearing loss, hitting marine mammals beyond the shutdown perimeter (sorry hearing-sensitive species!).

NRDC has been fighting to protect marine mammals from dangerous sonar for more than 12 years. Clearly, our work is not done.