Defend the Nation or the Pacific Ocean?

By Anna Nidhiry | UTS Staff Writer | SQ Online (2013-14)

Navy training, at the expense of marine life, should be re-evaluated

When gazing at the glistening blue waters from La Jolla Shores it’s hard to imagine another world teeming with life underneath the surface. The stretch of ocean between sunny Southern California and Hawaii is home to over a thousand species of marine life, from the smallest invertebrates to colossal schools of fish and mammals.

Among the scores of animals roaming this expanse are marine mammals, such as dolphins and whales, both residing in and migrating through the Pacific Ocean for feeding and reproduction. These marine mammals include the bottlenose dolphin, humpback and beaked whale, and the world’s largest animal in existence, the blue whale. Despite their massive size, many of these animals fall under the endangered category and their already dwindling numbers may be threatened even more by the approval of military activity in the waters between the coasts of Hawaii and California.

The National Marine Fisheries Service, a federal agency dedicated to protection and management of the country’s marine life, recently approved a five-year permit granting the U.S. Navy permission to use high intensity sonar and explosives in the Pacific Ocean. According to the Navy, its purpose is to conduct the necessary sonar testing and military training to prepare for certification of the Pacific Fleet and potential battle operations. In the interest of national defense, it is important to ensure that naval equipment is up to par, particularly in comparison to foreign fleets.

In conjunction with permitting naval activity, the permit also funds coastal studies for the NOAA, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and groups such as UC San Diego’s own Scripps Institution of Oceanography for tracking and acoustic experiments. The research functions to provide insight into migration patterns and to analyze behavioral responses of marine mammals from sonar use.

However, such activity may come at the expense of marine life that shares the same space, causing uproar among environmental groups and threats of litigation. Marine mammals such as dolphins and whales both communicate and navigate via sounds at different frequencies in the ocean. These noises allow them to gauge distances and function in place of visibility for migration and feeding, making the animals highly sensitive to sound. The usage of high intensity sonars can thus cause disorientation and temporary loss of hearing with detrimental effects such as beaching, as well as permanent mental and reproductive damage. According to Naval estimates, such activity has the potential to kill over a hundred whales and cause serious injuries in approximately 2,000 marine mammals.

Whales surface near a U.S. Navy sponsored research vessel.
Whales surface near a U.S. Navy sponsored research vessel. Source

If research sponsored by the U.S. Navy itself shows that the use of a high intensity sonar and explosives in the ocean have harmful environmental effects, how can the National Marine Fisheries Service, an agency whose purpose is to protect marine life, grant consent disregarding the ramifications?

Regardless of the research funded by the permit to study the impact of Naval activity on marine life, it does not erase the five years worth of damage it will cause. Increased military sonar use has had a direct correlation with mass strandings and whale death for currently endangered species and if continued, unlimited use will only threaten their existence more.

Rather than ignore the projected losses for the sake of military progress, the agency should take into consideration the concerns of environmental groups and re-evaluate the permit. Possibly cutting down the time frame of the permit to two years and relocating military activity away from marine sanctuaries and migratory sites are modifications that could minimize the adverse effects. While our nation has a responsibility to keep its borders secure, it also has a duty to protect its oceans and living marine resources as well.


Links for further reading:

Scripps News: Researchers Collaborate to Study Marine Mammal Behavior

NBC: Bad news for whales and dolphins: Navy to expand sonar testing

OPB: Are Whales At Risk From Navy Sonar Training Plans?