Permit for Navy activities allows over 16,000 ‘behavioral disturbances’ to Southeast marine mammals

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

The U.S. Navy has received a green light from federal agencies for seven more years of training and testing up and down the West Coast.

NOAA Fisheries published a final permit Nov. 12 for the Navy’s testing and maneuvers from northern California to Southeast Alaska. In Alaska, the permit includes permission to behaviorally harass marine mammals more than 16,000 times over the next seven years.

Naval operations in Southeast Alaska consist mostly of acoustic measurement activities at the Southeast Alaska Acoustic Measurement Facility in the Behm Canal near Ketchikan.

Environmental groups have expressed concern that the Navy does not do enough to mitigate its impact on marine life — from larger marine mammals like whales and porpoises, down to fisheries and zooplankton.

Under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the Navy must submit an environmental impact statement for its Northwest Training and Testing Area. The EIS includes projected impacts to marine life and some mitigation efforts. The Navy released the final supplement to its EIS in late September.

The federal agencies tasked with protecting marine mammals then evaluate the EIS and approve a permit for harm. The Navy is not permitted to physically harm or kill any marine mammals in Southeast Alaska over the next seven years, but is permitted thousands of what it calls behavioral disturbances. This can include disruption to feeding, interacting or traveling from place to place.

Calculation of disturbances to marine mammals and other ocean-dwellers is theoretical. The Navy does not keep track of actual harm done to marine mammals during the course of training exercises, instead using the number of training and testing activities as a proxy to estimate marine impacts.

Both the Marine Mammal Commission and NOAA Fisheries declined to comment, directing questions back to the Navy.