Navy Training, Testing and Marine Mammals: Focus on the Facts

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Rear Admiral Kevin R. Slates

By Rear Adm. Kevin R. Slates
Director, Chief of Naval Operations Energy and Environmental Readiness Division

The Navy is renewing authorizations that will enable us to continue to train and test live sonar and explosives at sea for another five years (2019). The process of renewing authorizations involves analyzing the possible effects of training and testing and making that data publicly available in the form of the Hawaii-Southern California Training and Testing environmental impact statement (HSTT EIS) and the Atlantic Fleet Training and Testing environmental impact statement (AFTT EIS).

Some of the information in those EISs has been misrepresented and exaggerated. Lost in the discussion during a recent meeting of the California Coastal Commission is this fact: the best available science—and the Navy’s long track record of conducting similar training and testing—indicate our proposed activities will continue to have negligible effects on marine mammal populations. For a better understanding of these issues, read what several well-respected marine scientists have to say.

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Each EIS includes numbers estimating marine mammal exposures to sonar or explosives training and testing. Those numbers are based on mathematical modeling that assumes the maximum exposure/worst case scenarios, and are often mistakenly cited with alarm by people who do not recognize or accept that:

  • Live sonar and explosives training prepares Sailors to succeed in combat. The threats our Sailors face in the world’s hot spots are not restricted to convenient times or places, nor can simulators or inert weapons fully prepare them for those threats. That is why our training must be both broad and realistic.
  • Exposure to sonar does not equate to injury. Laws such as the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) and the Endangered Species Act (ESA) define human impacts to marine mammals in degrees, ranging from simply hearing a sound, to mild behavioral effects, to injury and mortality.  The scientific analysis indicates that while marine mammals may be exposed to sonar during Navy training and testing, the vast majority (if not all) of marine mammals that are exposed will not be injured in any way. Animals may react to the sound, or move away, but research shows that they are likely to return quickly and resume their normal activities. Claims that the Navy is harming millions of marine mammals are ignoring this fact.
  • Our analysis overestimates the impact our activities have on marine mammals. The Navy thoroughly analyzes all of the at-sea training and testing activities, we are planning for the five-year period of our permits from the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS). With NMFS concurrence, we use a mathematical model to estimate the total number of marine mammal exposures that may result from those activities. That model, which uses the best available science, estimates potential for injuries or mortalities in less than .05 percent (five in 10,000) of the marine mammal exposures associated with our activities. It does not account for avoidance actions that marine mammals are likely to take in response to our activities, or protective measures (see below) which lessen marine mammal exposure to potentially harmful activities. The reality is the impact of Navy training and testing activity on marine mammals is likely to be significantly less than what our permit requests capture.
  • The EIS numbers do not take into account the protective measures (mitigations) the Navy adopts whenever we conduct sonar or explosives training or testing. These measures include using trained marine mammal lookouts; employing aircraft and underwater listening systems to scan for marine mammals; establishing buffer zones to reduce or halt sonar transmissions when we detect marine mammals near our ships; and software tools that delineate what training and testing events we can undertake in areas associated with marine mammal activity. We developed these measures in conjunction with NMFS  and re-evaluate them annually.
  • These proposed activities are not new.  The Navy has trained and tested in these areas for more than six decades, and there has been no evidence of extensive impacts to marine mammal populations as a result. The EISs do account for increases in training and testing, as well as testing of new and upgraded systems, but these activities will continue to have negligible impacts. Some of the additional training and testing might not even occur, especially in light of current and future budget restrictions. But we need to plan for the possibility that they could.
  • Sonar and explosives training have been linked to only a handful of strandings, affecting a few dozen animals over the past 17 years. We learned from these incidents.  The March 2000 stranding in the Bahamas was a major factor behind the Navy’s decision to implement an at-sea environmental policy that requires comprehensive analysis and documentation for our training activities. Similarly, a March 2011 incident in which three dolphins were killed when they swam into the scene of explosives training near San Diego resulted in safer procedures for conducting such training. We sincerely regret those instances where our activities have led to marine mammal deaths, and have since made great strides in understanding how our actions affect marine mammals. Additionally, we have become a world leader in funding marine mammal research, dedicating more than $100 million to such research in the past five years.

The Navy cannot guarantee that our training and testing activities will have zero effects on marine mammals, but for that very reason, we justify our requirements to, and ultimately receive our permits from, the fisheries service. The experts at NMFS will only issue permits if they are confident our proposed activities will have a negligible impact on marine life — and that is exactly what NMFS has determined in its proposed final rule for the Hawaii-Southern California and Atlantic Coast/Gulf of Mexico areas.

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We strive to be responsible stewards of the environment as we support America’s security and prosperity. I sincerely hope those interested in these issues will focus on the science and the facts, and choose to ignore emotional, non-factual statements.