Under threat of a lawsuit, the U.S. Navy confirmed this week that it will review how its exercises in the Pacific might hurt, kill or otherwise change the behavior of marine wildlife.
In a letter to the Center for Biological Diversity on Tuesday, the Navy said it would begin consulting with the National Marine Fisheries Service. The move comes in response to a notice of intent to sue that the environmental group filed in May after two whales died during a multinational training exercise this summer off California.
The Center for Biological Diversity’s notice demanded the Navy and National Marine Fisheries Service consult on ways to mitigate the impact of training on endangered whale species.
“We’re glad to see the Navy reexamining the harms of its training exercises on these mighty but vulnerable creatures,” Kristen Monsell, the Oceans Program legal director at the center, said in a press release Thursday.
The U.S. Navy’s exercises in the Pacific are authorized under a federal permit approved in 2018 for Pacific military exercises from Southern California to Hawaii. The permit was extended in 2020 for another two years — leaving it in effect until 2025.
Brenda Way, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Navy’s Hawaii-based Pacific Fleet, said in an email that the Navy and National Marine Fisheries Service plan to “reinitiate formal consultation under the Endangered Species Act for the Hawaii-Southern California Training and Testing study area.”
The Pacific is considered the military’s top priority theater of operations. Hawaii is home to the U.S. military’s Indo-Pacific command, which oversees all troops and operations across the Pacific, East Asia, Australia, the Indian subcontinent and parts of the Arctic.
The large Pacific Fleet is the backbone of the American military presence in the region, and has been stepping up training and deployments amid increased tensions with China.
“Minimizing impacts on the marine environment is important to the Navy,” said Way. She said sonar and explosives that the Navy use during exercises and operations often have an impact on wildlife, but she stressed that most of what the service has documented hasn’t been fatal to marine species.
“Based on current research, monitoring, and modeling data, the analysis indicates that the majority of effects on marine mammals would be behavioral responses,” said Way, adding that mostly means movement in another direction or a minor change in behavior. “The Navy will implement mitigation and monitoring measures to avoid or minimize effects on marine species.”
“These military activities can wreak havoc on whales, dolphins and other marine mammals through explosions, sonar and ship strikes,” Monell said in the center’s release. “We hope this process leads to new mitigation measures like slowing ships down in important whale habitat. The Biden administration needs to find a better balance of marine protection with military readiness.”
It’s not just military ships that threaten whales. Countless container ships constantly traverse the ocean moving goods and services, along with a wide range of survey vessels and other ships. Federal records documented at least 26 whales killed in fatal strikes with vessels of all kinds along the West Coast from 2014 through 2018.
Recent studies suggest there may be even more, with some researchers estimating that the actual number could be as much as 20 times larger since most dead whales sink without large ship crews ever knowing.
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Kevin Knodell reports on the military and veterans for Civil Beat as a corps member for Report For America, a national nonprofit that places journalists in local newsrooms to cover underreported topics.