Green Light for Largest Harm to Marine Mammals in at Least 20 Years

Humpback Whale Tale (photo by NOAA)

On Thursday, the National Marine Fisheries Service (“NMFS”) – the federal agency charged with protecting whales and dolphins – will announce its intent to authorize the Navy to take marine mammals more than 31 million times over the next five years during training and testing activities off Southern California, Hawaii, and the East Coast, including the Gulf of Mexico.  If finalized, the authorization will allow the Navy to kill nearly 350 whales and dolphins (via explosions, sonar, and ship strikes) and marine mammals will suffer millions of instances of temporary hearing loss, which could last more than a week.

It’s the largest proposed authorization of harm (quantitatively) since such authorizations have been required under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.  It’s likely the largest harm to marine mammals that any agency in the Federal Government has proposed as a result of direct agency action.

Last year, I wondered if NMFS would stand up to the Navy.  Apparently the answer is: No.  Inexplicably, NMFS has “preliminarily” concluded that 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 – is all that’s necessary to protect whales and dolphins.  NMFS’ conclusion is farcical on its face. First, the lookout/shutdown scheme is ineffective.  As the Navy admits, lookouts on Navy ships only detect about 9 percent of whales and dolphins in the best of conditions.  Second, we know it’s ineffective because NMFS’ is authorizing the Navy to take marine mammals more than 31 million times.  If a measure was effective, I’d expect that number to be lower, wouldn’t you?

Comments to NMFS on its proposed authorization will be due March 11.  NRDC will be submitting comments urging NMFS to meet its obligations under the MMPA – to develop and adopt protective measures that meaningfully protect whales and dolphins.

About the Authors

Zak Smith

Senior Attorney, Marine Mammal Protection Project, Land & Wildlife Program

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