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A Naval Assault on Right Whales?

The navy plans combat testing next to the only known North Atlantic right whale calving area

The Humane Society of the United States

Critically endangered North Atlantic right whales are killed in unsustainable numbers by collisions with ships. There are only 400 left in the North Atlantic, and the chances of the species surviving are made even slimmer by the fact that it is mothers and calves who die in the highest numbers. They are vulnerable to being spooked by low-flying helicopters and becoming dangerously entangled in ropes or fishing lines.

A nightmare comes to the nursery

Safeguarding right whale breeding grounds is key to the recovery of the species. The only known calving area for North Atlantic right whales is off the coast of Florida. You wouldn't think the U.S. Navy would install right next to that nursery a warfare training range that would involve increased numbers of ships transiting day and night, require low-flying helicopters, and deposit unretrieved parachutes and lines just outside this calving ground. But that is exactly what the navy has proposed. The navy originally chose a training site off North Carolina that researchers have found to be of lower risk to marine mammals. But after proposing this site, the Navy abruptly changed plans, choosing an area next to the nursery.

No compromise

When the area next to the nursery was proposed, The HSUS submitted comments critical of the site and asking that the navy either choose a different site for warfare training or refrain from training during the months when right whale mothers are in the area giving birth to their calves. The navy has rejected virtually all suggested risk-reduction measures.

No protection

This week the National Marine Fisheries Service, which is legally responsible for protecting the right whale, gave a green light to the construction of listening apparatus necessary to setting up the training range, stating that construction would not adversely affect right whales. At the same time, the Service declined to perform an in-depth evaluation of the effects of conducting warfare training at the site, which is set to begin in 2013.

The Service said it would consider the effects of operating the facility and what to do about them at that time. It is certainly improper, and circumvents required environmental protections, for the Service to try to divorce the effects of constructing the facility from the effects of operating it once it is constructed.

The bottom line

While the construction may itself seem benign, it will make possible warfare training exercises that will have a potentially significant impact on right whales:

  • They will dramatically increase navy vessel traffic—ship collisions are a leading killer of right whales.
  • The navy is exempting its vessels from the precautionary speed restrictions that apply to all other vessels near the calving area.
  • The training will employ disruptive low-flying helicopters and aircraft in waters that are currently favored by right whales because they are calm.
  • There will be target and torpedo simulators and extremely loud sonar. Military sonar has been implicated in the deaths of various species of whales.
  • Debris from parachutes and cables will litter the area—entanglement is a significant killer of right whales.

    Choosing to site this sort of training range just outside critical calving habitat for right whales is risky. Rejecting all proposed measures to minimize risk is even more risky. The HSUS, along with other partners in the environmental community, will be weighing our response to what appears to be an assault on a critically endangered species. We will continue to be vigorous advocates for their protection.


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