Agency Says North Carolina Range Could Endanger Spawning, Habitat for Multiple Species

The letter, which was released after a FOIA request by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), says that the high-intensity sonar range "could adversely impact spawning activity" of a variety of fish, including mackerels and tunas, and could "continuously and cumulatively adversely impact" habitat for commercial fish such as summer flounder and black seabass.

"NOAA has now confirmed that the sonar range could harm not just whales but entire fisheries, which are the lifeblood of North Carolina's coastal economy," said Michael Jasny, a senior consultant with NRDC. "Clearly the Navy has not told the whole story."

The sonar range's potential to harm marine life is the subject of widespread scientific and public concern. In a Draft Environmental Impact Statement, the Navy concluded that the range's 161 annual exercises would have only minimal effects on fish populations and habitat, but fishing associations, biologists, state agencies, and now NOAA have taken issue with that claim.

According to NOAA, the Navy has failed to account for expected impacts to fish and fisheries that would occur from the proposed range. NOAA is particularly concerned by the impacts of year-round exercises on the spawning activity of a variety of fish, including drums and croakers, jacks, mackerels, and tunas. Research suggests that some fish, like the silver perch, a common forage species, will cease their spawning choruses when exposed to mid-frequency sonar.

NOAA also disputes the Navy's analysis of impacts on the region's bottom habitats. According to the agency, the miles of underwater cables that would be installed on the Navy range could "scour relatively large areas" of the ocean floor, "continuously and cumulatively" damaging habitat that supports a variety of commercial fish, including snapper, grouper, summer flounder, black sea bass, and scup.

The NOAA comments join others submitted by state agencies, including the North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries and the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission. All take issue with the Navy's conclusion, expressed in its Draft Environmental Impact Statement, that impacts on fish and fisheries would be minimal. NOAA's letter adds to the "significant concerns" that NOAA has already expressed about the range's impacts on marine mammals.

The NOAA letter can be downloaded here. Comment letters submitted by the state agencies mentioned above can be found here.