Northwest Environmental Defense Center

Northwest Defense is the Northwest Environmental Defense Center's blog (and newsletter). Learn about NEDC's latest work, current issues related to air and water quality, and conservation measures in the Pacific Northwest.

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Wednesday, February 25, 2015

NEPA and the Navy: a supplement that is hard to swallow

By Jeff Speir, Student Director

The Department of the Navy and environmental advocates are no strangers to conflict. Actions aimed at military preparedness are often at odds with environmental protection. From Puerto Rico to California, the military and environmentalists have litigated many fundamental issues of environmental law through the years. In each scenario, governmental decision-makers face the difficult task of delicately balancing competing interests. The Navy’s recent plan to increase training and testing activities off the coasts of Oregon, Washington, and California proposes to disrupt the balance by harming endangered leatherback sea turtles and marine mammals.

The Navy's operations will impact leatherback sea turtles and humpback whales. [Public domain]

In December, the Navy issued a Supplement to a Draft Environmental Impact Statement that proposes to dramatically increase deployment of sonar buoys by 550 per year. Sonar buoys, or sonobuoys, are yard-long cylinders of material that are dropped into water via aircraft. Once in the water, sonobuoys detect the presence of submarines and relay information back to the aircraft. Each sonobuoy is equipped with a decelerator/parachute to lessen the impact it makes with the surface of the water. Despite their benefits to military training, sonobuoys can be detrimental to the environment and wildlife as a source of acoustic stress, by causing physical disturbance and strike, by creating entanglement, and by complicating ingestion.

The Supplement concedes that the increased number of sonobuoys proposed will adversely affect endangered leatherback sea turtles and marine mammals. Physical strike and disturbance, paired with acoustic stressors are likely to have psychological and behavioral impacts to leatherbacks. Notably, the Supplement failed to adequately account for another major stressor on leatherbacks: ingestion. Because the decelerator/parachutes closely resemble the jellyfish upon which the leatherbacks feed, they are likely to attempt to eat the plastic debris, and may choke on the unnatural addition to their ecosystem. Effects are especially poignant for leatherbacks in the area, considering the recent designation of critical habitat for the species along the northern Pacific coast.

Left, preparing sonobuoys; right, a Navy helicopter dropping sonobuoys. [Public domain]

Increased training and testing activities will inadvertently take and will adversely affect marine mammals, including humpback whales, blue whales, fin whales, sperm whales, southern resident killer whales, and Guadalupe fur seals. In fact, the Supplement proposes an astounding increase in the number of anticipated harassment events to marine mammals—from 24,199 per year to 107,062 per year. Harassment in the form of tampering with the fine-tuned auditory sense of whales could disrupt essential feeding behavior and result in habitat displacement, disorientation, and stranding.

NEDC submitted comments to the Navy in early February, highlighting deficiencies in the Supplement and urging the government to closely consider adverse effects to leatherback sea turtles and marine mammals as it moves forward with a plan for training and testing activities. As it stands, the Navy has a long way to go to achieve the delicate balance between providing military preparedness and ensuring environmental protection off the coasts of Oregon, Washington, and California.

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