Whales and Dolphins in Southern California and Hawaii Are Put on Notice by Feds

Northern right whale dolphin (Photo by NOAA)

The federal government has given the U.S. Navy the final green light to inflict millions of instances of harm on marine mammals in Southern California and Hawaii over the next five years, including thousands of instances of permanent injury or death.

The permitting agency, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS aka NOAA Fisheries) announced today the finalization of rules governing the Navy’s training and testing activities in an area stretching from Southern California to Hawaii for 2014–2019

Incredibly, NOAA Fisheries—the agency charged with protecting whales, dolphins, and other marine mammals—continues to claim “no harm, no foul” while giving the Navy approval to kill hundreds of whales and dolphins, inflict thousands of instances of permanent hearing loss, millions of instances of temporary hearing loss, and millions of instances of significant disruptions of vital life functions (migration, nursing, breeding, feeding, etc.).

NOAA Fisheries continues to defy common sense and claim that these injuries and harms will have a “negligible impact” on the more than 30 species of whales and dolphins that make Southern California and Hawaii waters their home, including endangered blue whales and humpback whales and hearing-sensitive beaked whales. 

The permit was issued despite the mountain of science (including the Navy’s own science) illustrating the harm sonar and explosives cause marine mammals, including recent literature showing specific impacts to Southern California beaked whales and endangered blue whales from sonar. These studies confirm that activities that cause endangered and struggling populations to forgo foraging and other critical life functions can no longer be shrugged off.

Yet that’s exactly what NOAA Fisheries continues to do. What is its justification for spending hundreds of hours assessing harmful impacts, detailing the plight of protected marine resources, identifying important habitat for whales and dolphins in Southern California and Hawaii, engaging with the public and scientific community over how to protect America’s marine resources, but then doing nothing? NOAA has a core responsibility to limit harm to marine mammals. In approving the Navy’s permit, it is failing, with lethal results.  This isn’t environmental protection; it’s a white flag.

NOAA Fisheries’ final rule does not require one additional protective measure that wasn’t already proposed by the Navy and isn’t already accounted for in the estimates of millions of instances of harm.

Instead of embracing the one measure that would significantly reduce impacts to marine mammals, keeping harmful activities away from important habitats for the most vulnerable whales and dolphins, NOAA Fisheries continues to cling to a Navy lookout regime that is wholly inadequate and ineffectual. This failed measure—centered on the ability of lookouts to detect whales and dolphins visually as they surface for air and then limit the use of sonar when they get too close—only helps the handful of whales and dolphins that Navy personnel detect within a limited range. With a detection rate for marine mammals that hovers around 10 percent even in the best of conditions and studies showing serious harm—including temporary hearing loss, hitting marine mammals beyond the shutdown perimeter—NOAA Fisheries embraces a protective measure that is the equivalent of fighting a massive blaze with a water gun.

NOAA Fisheries’ ruling and the Navy’s training and testing cannot go unchallenged. Too much is at stake for California’s and Hawaii’s marine resources. NRDC has fought to protect whales and dolphins from dangerous sonar and underwater detonations for more than a decade and we’re not going to stop now.

About the Authors

Zak Smith

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

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