The U.S. Navy wants to teach sailors how to hunt submarines off the coast of Jacksonville, but it's trying to prove its proposed undersea-warfare-training range won't hurt the world's most endangered whale.
Concern about harm to the North Atlantic right whale from military sonar, vessels and torpedoes might pose a stumbling block to the proposed $100 million training range, which could be built near the whale's protected calving area.
The U.S. Navy announced earlier this year that it wants to build the undersea-warfare-training range in a 662-square-mile zone nearly 58 miles off Jacksonville. The proximity to Mayport Naval Station, water depths and the climate make it an ideal location over three alternate sites, according to a draft Navy environmental report.
The military complex would feature a network of 300 sonar sensors buried in the ocean floor that would monitor the fighting scenarios among submarines, ships and helicopters. Nonexplosive torpedoes and sonar would be used during 470 military exercises each year.
Navy officials say the range will be key to preparing its sailors for deployment in shallower waters, such as the Arabian or South China seas, against elusive, extremely quiet diesel submarines. But environmentalists fear whales could die from being run over by ships or becoming disoriented from the sonar.
"Trying to find a submarine is very difficult. The type of training this range will provide is critical," said retired Navy Cmdr. Jene Nissen, project manager for the range proposal. "This training will enhance their readiness and ensure they will be the most prepared when they are deployed overseas in harm's way."
Federal reviews of the project are under way. The Navy analyzed how the range could affect endangered marine wildlife and concluded it wouldn't be significantly harmed.
"Under federal law, environmental issues have to be placed on par with other national interests, including economic concerns and military training," said Michelle B. Nowlin, supervising attorney for the Environmental Law and Policy Clinic at the Duke University School of Law. "The courts have been very clear there must be a balance of those interests."
Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to lift some restrictions on anti-submarine training off the California coast, allowing the exercises to continue while their environmental effects are reviewed.
Seen off Volusia, Brevard
Off the East Coast, the right whales' pregnant females migrate south to southern Georgia and northern Florida to birth and nurse calves. The pairs sometimes can be seen from Volusia and Brevard beaches.
Federal officials have protected the right whale by prohibiting vessels from approaching the whales too closely. Several teams of whale watchers fly over the ocean, and a network of beachfront volunteers survey from land to spot whales and warn boaters.
This year, the National Marine Fisheries Service instituted a 10-knot speed limit for vessels in the habitat zone. Ship strikes kill at least one or two right whales a year. Scientists say the species can't sustain that kind of death toll. Federal reports say the death of even one pregnant female could risk the species' survival.
That's why more than a dozen conservation groups have opposed a permanent range for the sonar-based warfare training near the calving grounds. Military sonar, broadcasting an active midfrequency signal at 235 decibels, has a lethal history, with a dozen cases worldwide of mass whale and dolphin strandings and evidence of damage to their hearing after underwater exercises.
But there's little research on how these large whales might be disturbed by the sound, whether it causes them to avoid feeding areas or disrupts other normal behavior, said Brandon Southall, who runs the ocean-acoustics program for the National Marine Fisheries Services. Southall said the actual effects depend on many factors, including the distance between the sonar source and the animal, water conditions, multiple sources of sound, the duration of the sonar and whether animals are in an area where they can't easily move away.
"The potential for direct injury in terms of damaging hearing happens when the whales are really close to the source, and the one advantage of right whales is that they're fairly easy to see," Southall said.
And there isn't enough information on how often the whales at the calving grounds might frequent the proposed range. Aerial surveys don't cover the training area. Nissen said the Navy hopes to fill that gap with consultant studies on how whales, and other endangered animals, use the range.
Navy vows protections
The Navy plans to set up lookouts and monitor the whales. Officials also promise to lower or shut down active sonar as whales get close.
According to the Navy's environmental analysis, the whales won't suffer hearing damage. But the study estimated there might be as many as 48 times a year when migrating right whales will be near military exercises and could hear enough sonar to affect their behavior.
What worries conservation groups is how military sonar could disrupt the mothers and newborns.
"These relationships are so delicate that it wouldn't take much for a mother and calf to be separated," said Zak Smith, attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council. "A temporary hearing loss or any kind of disruption could potentially lead to the calf's death."
Conservation groups have asked for changes, but Nissen said limitations could hamper deployments.
The National Marine Fisheries Service will analyze the species risk during the next few months. The public will have a chance to comment.
Nissen said final environmental reports and other federal reviews could be done by May. The range could be in operation as early as 2013.