Right Whales, Wrong Place, Wrong Time: Proposed Sonar Training off the Florida Coast Will Put Whales in Jeopardy

There's been a lot of press today about the sighting of 11 North Atlantic right whales off the Florida coast. This is big news!  North Atlantic right whales are critically endangered, with only about 300 remaining in the world.  Right whales got their name by being in the wrong place - hovering near the surface of the water.  Thus, early whalers dubbed them the "right" whale to kill.

Unfortunately for right whales, things haven't gotten much better.  The U.S. Navy now plans to build a 500-square-mile undersea sonar testing range right next to their critical habitat - and only known calving ground - in the waters off northeastern Florida.  Even worse for right whales, the same sonar that the Navy plans to use has caused mass injuries and deaths of whales around the globe.  Sonar can also induce panic responses, displace animals, and disrupt crucial behavior such as feeding, breeding, navigating, and avoiding predators. 

Locating this massive sonar testing range right next to the only known calving ground for a critically endangered species makes no sense.  The Navy clearly isn't listening to the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), which has specifically recognized the importance of the right whale calving ground as "a location vital to the population" and a "very high-risk area for pregnant females, new mothers, and calves." 

The Navy's proposal would place mothers and their baby calves in extreme risk because they are the most vulnerable segment of the population.  Not only are they the most susceptible to noise, but they would also be highly exposed to ship strikes.  Mothers and calves, in particular, are more likely to remain on or near the surface of the water as a result of the limited lung capacity of newborns.  However, their dark coloration and lack of a dorsal fin make them difficult to detect. 

Despite these dangers, the Navy has arbitrarily concluded that not a single right whale would be injured by the over 470 sonar training exercises per year spanning over 500 square nautical miles.  Such logic simply defies reason.  To make matters worse, the Navy has rejected a long list of mitigation measures that could reduce the harmful impacts of its sonar training, including seasonal restrictions during the right whale calving period and geographic exclusions of the right whale calving ground.

Ignoring the advice of NMFS - that any disturbance whatsoever could affect the survival of the species - will lead to disaster for the right whales that, once again, find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time. 

Click here to read NRDC's letter to NMFS.

About the Authors

Taryn Kiekow Heimer

Senior Policy Analyst, Marine Mammal Protection Project, Land and Wildlife Program

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