We Need President Obama to Save Whales from Navy Exercises

Humpback whale and its calf (Photo by NOAA)

This week, the Natural Resources Defense Council launched a petition drive asking President Obama to protect whales from deadly sonar and explosives.

It’s action the world’s marine mammals desperately need. At home, the Navy is engaged in exercises that will inflict more than 31 million instances of harm on whales and dolphins over the next five years, including millions of instances of temporary hearing loss and more than 13,000 instances of permanent hearing loss or injury to internal organs. The Navy’s modeling also showed that its activities could kill nearly 1,000 whales and dolphins. And abroad, as my colleague Michael Jasny has written, the Navy’s activities continue to be implicated in whale strandings, the most recent occurring a few months ago on the shores of Crete.

We shouldn’t have to accept these losses and we wouldn’t have to if the National Marine Fisheries Service—the agency charged with protecting marine mammals—did its job. At the beginning of the Obama administration, the White House asked for an accounting from the Fisheries Service over a midnight regulation authorizing the Navy to harm whales along our coasts. That agency agreed that more needed to be done, made promises to fix its failings, and noted that the best way to protect whales and dolphins was to keep Navy sonar out of important marine mammal habitat. Unfortunately, the Fisheries Service broke its promise to do better and is standing by new regulations even worse than the ones it pushed through at the close of the Bush Administration.

It didn’t have to be this way. Concerned citizens did everything they could to hold the Fisheries Service to its promise (submitted comments, attended hearings, wrote letters, signed petitions, engaged with Congress, supported development of new tools), urging the Fisheries Service to do its job and aggressively protect marine mammals from sonar and explosives. Instead, the agency authorized an unprecedented level of harm to whales and dolphins—harms that would have been significantly reduced if the regulatory agency had kept its promise to the White House.

Our Navy’s been harming whales and dolphins for long enough. And the agency charged with protecting these animals has been letting the Navy get away with it, despite having the authority and obligation to require better protections. NRDC has been working for years to save marine mammals from Navy sonar, as detailed in the new book War of the Whales: A True Story. Our battle continues now in federal court, but we don’t have to wait for Court action; the President can order these agencies to act.

I don’t know when or why these agencies lost their way. But I do know that more can be done to save whales and dolphins from Navy sonar and explosives and that the President has the power to get these agencies back on track. I hope he uses it. The lives of whales and dolphins depend on it.

About the Authors

Zak Smith

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

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