The Progressive


A project of Common Dreams

For Immediate Release

Catherine Wannamaker, Southern Environmental Law Center, (404) 521-9900 Katherine Sullivan, Southern Environmental Law Center, (919) 945-7106 Sierra Weaver, Defenders of Wildlife, (202) 772-3274 Steve Roady, Earthjustice, (202) 667-4500 Kristen Eastman, The Humane Society of the United States, (301) 721-6440 Jessica Lass, Natural Resources Defense Council, (310) 434-2300

Conservation Groups in Court to Save Highly Endangered Whales

Right whales' only known calving grounds threatened by Navy project

ATLANTA, Georgia

Conservation groups today challenged the U.S. Navy's decision to
build its $100 million Undersea Warfare Training Range next to the only
known calving ground for the critically endangered North Atlantic right
whale. The Southern Environmental Law Center, Defenders of Wildlife,
Earthjustice, Natural Resources Defense Council, The Humane Society of
the United States, and nine other conservation groups brought the

"Right whales shouldn't be subjected to the threats that accompany
this range - ship strikes, entanglement and noise disturbance - in the
only place in the world where vulnerable females give birth to and care
for their calves," said Catherine Wannamaker, an attorney with Southern
Environmental Law Center. "While we recognize the Navy's need to train,
there are ways to accommodate that need without introducing multiple
risks of harm into such a sensitive area."

The project threatens the already precarious survival of right
whales by introducing multiple known threats - ship strikes,
entanglement, and noise disturbances - into an area critical to mothers
and calves.

"The people of the southeast who welcome the return of the right
whales each year know all too well the gruesome results when one is
struck by a ship," said Sierra Weaver, attorney for Defenders of
Wildlife. "This project will almost certainly increase that threat, and
yet the National Marine Fisheries Service, the agency in charge of
protecting the whales, has given the Navy a green light."

The legal challenge alleges that the Navy and the National Marine
Fisheries Service failed to study the environmental impacts of building
and operating the training range at this location. The Navy decided to
construct the range now, even though it acknowledges that more research
needs to be done on the range's environmental impacts before operations
can begin. In documents filed with the court, the groups argue that the
agencies must first address the impacts from operating the range before
deciding to construct it.

"The Navy's decision to shoot first and study the environmental
impacts of using this facility later simply makes no sense," said
Sharon Young, field director of The HSUS. "The Navy is playing Russian
roulette with one of our most imperiled wildlife species."

"The science here is settled," said Steve Roady of Earthjustice.
"Right whales are critically endangered and the government knows it.
Under the circumstances, it is baffling that NMFS and the Navy could be
planning to proceed with this project that places so many of these
whales at risk. This is decidedly not sound science; it is
fundamentally unsound."

As part of the planned training, Navy ships - exempt from speed
restrictions designed to protect right whales - would pass through the
calving grounds when traveling between the proposed training area and
bases at Jacksonville, FL, and Kings Bay, GA. Ship strikes are the
single largest cause of death for right whales with at least eight
right whales killed in the past six years, including three pregnant
females. Ship traffic in the calving grounds is of particular concern
since data suggests female right whales are struck more often, possibly
because they must spend more time at the surface with their calves
which have undeveloped lung capacities. Scientists believe that the
loss of even one right whale from non-natural causes could jeopardize
the future of the species.

"Right whales already face a triple threat: sonar exposure,
collisions with ships and debris entanglement," said Taryn Kiekow,
staff attorney with NRDC. "Science tells us the loss of even a single
North Atlantic right whale could threaten the survival of the entire
species. Constructing a training range in the only area where the North
Atlantic right whales give birth and nurture their young will only
exacerbate the already tenuous grip this species has on survival."

After laying cables through the 500 square nautical mile training
area, the Navy plans to conduct 470 annual exercises on the training
range with up to three vessels and two aircraft deploying exercise
torpedoes, parachutes and sonobuoys, and sonar and other noise
pollution. Sonar can cause a range of impacts on marine wildlife - from
disrupting nursing and feeding to injury and death in some cases.
Debris left behind on the range may heighten risk of entanglement.
According to scientists, approximately 14 to 51 percent of the right
whale population is entangled each year which can interfere with
eating, breathing or swimming.

Despite strong concerns expressed by Georgia and Florida,
conservation groups, and scientists, the Navy decided to proceed with
its plans without implementing recommended measures that could have
lessened the impact of its activities.

The challenge was filed today in U.S.
District Court for the Southern District of Georgia by Defenders of
Wildlife, The Humane Society of the United States, Whale and Dolphin
Conservation Society, Natural Resources Defense Council, Center for a
Sustainable Coast, Florida Wildlife Federation, North Carolina Wildlife
Federation, South Carolina Coastal Conservation League, Animal Welfare
Institute, Ocean Mammal Institute, Citizens Opposing Active Sonar
Threats, and Cetacean Society International. The groups are represented
by attorneys from Southern Environmental Law Center, Defenders of
Wildlife, Earthjustice, and Natural Resources Defense Council.

Learn more about what Defenders is doing to protect right whales.