Navy pledges no serious harm to Alaska marine life, environmentalists skeptical of claims

The Southeast Alaska Acoustic Measurement Facility in the Behm Canal, near Ketchikan.
(Photo courtesy Jennifer Kelso via KRBD)

The U.S. Navy says it doesn’t know how many marine mammals it actually disturbs or harms each year. But it predicts its exercises and maneuvers in Southeast Alaska waters won’t cause the death of any marine mammals, according to its updated environmental review for the next seven years for its Northwest Training on the West Coast.

John Mosher, an environmental planner for the Navy in charge of the project’s review, said it’s educated guesswork.

“The takes themselves, especially because they’re almost entirely behavioral disturbance, are very theoretical,” Mosher explained. “We model, we project what could occur if we conduct the full extent of these activities. In most cases, we’re never going to know if in fact, they really occurred.”

The environmental impact statement is a requirement of the National Marine Fisheries Service which regulates marine mammals and is charged with their protection from harm.

The study area includes the Navy’s Southeast Alaska Acoustic Measurement Facility, or SEAFAC, near Ketchikan’s Behm Canal.

SEAFAC measures the sound signatures of Navy vessels, specifically submarines, which need to remain as quiet as possible in the theater of war.

“The vast majority across the entire study area, across the entire EIS — over 99.9% of our authorizations for take are for behavioral disturbance,” Mosher said, explaining the breakdown of serious disturbances to lesser behavioral disturbances predicted by the EIS.

Mosher said that most of the effects Navy exercises have on marine mammals are non-lethal, the kind of disturbance that could stress an animal out but not cause permanent harm. Any instance of disturbance is called a “take.” A “take” can also mean the death of a marine mammal including dolphins, porpoises and whales.

The final EIS proposes no serious “takes” of marine mammals in Southeast Alaska waters in the next seven years. Mosher said that’s mostly because what the Navy does in Southeast is largely passive; SEAFAC is a listening station.

Still, the study increases the amount of projected behavioral disturbances to killer whales and Minke whales in the area compared to the Navy’s study five years ago. It also projects to increase thousands of behavioral “takes” for harbor seals in Alaska.

Those increases in proposed behavioral disturbance would happen despite the fact that the EIS also proposes lowering the number of yearly activities at SEAFAC.

The EIS also projects fewer “takes” for Alaska porpoises.

In a statement, a Navy spokesperson clarified that the changes are due to better modeling, updated marine mammal surveys and a better understanding of the animals thresholds for exposure to disturbances.

“Since the completion of the 2015 NWTT Final EIS/OEIS, new information has become available and is incorporated in this analysis,” the spokesperson said. “This includes updates to testing requirements, an updated acoustic effects model, updated marine mammal density data (number of animals per unit area), and updated criteria and thresholds which were derived from best available science. All of these factors have resulted in increased disturbances.”

Federal agencies are charged with evaluating the Navy’s plans. But they aren’t commenting. Both the Marine Mammal Commission and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries referred questions back to the military.

The Navy does not have “take” allowances for mortality or behavioral disturbances on fish and smaller invertebrate creatures. Those animals aren’t protected in the same way by federal law.

There are concerns from some quarters. The Center for Biological Diversity said the Navy turns a blind eye to the fact that a lot of marine mammals it said won’t be harmed migrate in and out of Alaska. Steve Jones — a California-based spokesman for the nonprofit — said it’s not just the big animals that are affected — and they’re important too.

“We’re very concerned with Navy exercises, particularly the sonar and explosions,” Jones explained, “and the impact they have on marine mammal populations, particularly whales, right down to the zooplankton that are the basic building block of life in the oceans. There’s a 50% mortality rate when you hit them with undersea noise pollution, such as explosions or sonar. So we’re concerned about that. This plan certainly is going to impact salmon that are migrating to Alaska, and a number of other species.”

The Navy said it won’t be testing any weapons in Southeast Alaska waters. The EIS only proposes one to two sonar tests per year at SEAFAC near Ketchikan.

The final permit from NOAA is expected to be issued later this month. You can take a look at the proposed permit here.

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