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 ServiceThe 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.

An Australian Navy destroyer dragged the two dead fin whales into the U.S. Navy’s base in San Diego where the animals dislodged from its hull. The Australian ship had been training offshore with American ships for weeks. 

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.

The U.S. Navy is reviewing the impact its operations may have on whales in the Pacific after the Center for Biological Diversity threatened a lawsuit in May. Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat

“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.

The Navy itself has increasingly been looking at environmental degradation and destruction of ecosystems as global security problems. The service has pushed to use more renewable energy, though the U.S. military remains one of the planet’s top polluters.

Fisheries have also increasingly factored into planning by the leaders of the Navy, Coast Guard and Marine Corps as competition over dwindling fish stocks has led to geopolitical turmoil and confrontations at sea between nations.

“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.”

However, even changes in movement patterns and behavior have been known to have long-term effects on both individual species and entire ecosystems. The Chinese military has also stepped up training in the Pacific and placed its forces on manmade islands it’s increasingly built in the South China Sea, while conflict in the region has made it nearly impossible for scientists to document the ecological impact.

“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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