‘Unprecedented Carnage’: U.S. Navy to Deafen Thousands of Whales and Dolphins

Branch will begin warfare training in waters teeming with marine mammals.

navy sonar killing whales
A killer whale surfaces for a breath in Morro Bay, near San Luis Obispo, California, in September 2007. (Photo: Bill Bouton/Creative Commons)
The director of the Public Trust Project, Alison has written for Grist and Politics Daily, among others.

The U.S. Navy has plans to employ sonar and explosives as part of its training program in the waters off Southern California and Hawaii—activities that will deafen, kill, or injure thousands of marine mammals.

In the five-year time period between 2014 and 2019, the Navy now expects 33 million incidents of harm to marine mammals, ranging from significant behavioral change to severe injury and death.

According to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the training will result in temporary hearing loss for five million marine mammals that inhabit or migrate through the training area, which include endangered and depleted humpback whales, blue whales, fin whales, sperm whales, Hawaiian monk seals, southern sea otter, and many more.  

In addition, more than 15,000 marine mammals will suffer permanent hearing loss, 9,000 will endure lung injuries, and more than 1,800 will die.

MORE: Ric O'Barry on Navy Dolphin Program: Deep Six It Now

Previous estimates, covering the time period from 2009 to 2013, showed that the training regimen would injure or kill 100 marine mammals. But the Navy’s latest environmental impact statement paints a different picture: In the five-year time period between 2014 and 2019, the Navy now expects 33 million incidents of harm to marine mammals, ranging from significant behavioral change to severe injury and death.

This is “unprecedented carnage,” says Zak Smith, an attorney with the Marine Mammals Protection Project at the NRDC. 

Mere behavioral change might not seem like much, but dolphins, whales, and porpoises use sound waves to communicate with each other, locate food sources, and orient themselves in marine environments. 

These animals are highly sensitive to the frequencies and range of mid-frequency sonar, which has been tied to dramatic mass strandings in several countries (imagine whales throwing themselves on land in an attempt to escape the devastating high-pitched sound coming from navy ships).   

If you want a sense of how brutal the sound can be, check out this video, recorded by the Center for Whale Research, which features actual Navy sonar. You can see orcas fleeing the sound, and staying above water as much as possible to avoid it.

“We have all this new science, all these increases in training, and now we have a snapshot of harm that will flow from these activities. What [the Navy] got back is a portrait of destruction. But it’s business as usual. They are not asking how they can reduce these numbers,” Smith said in an interview with TakePart.

What the Navy could do, Smith and others argue, is consider what is already known about the habits and patterns of the affected species, and plan accordingly.

“It’s not as if these training exercises can’t go forward somewhere; it’s really about time and place. Scientists have a good sense of where whales are likely to be found at certain times per year,” Steve Mashuda, an attorney with Earthjustice, said in a phone interview. 

Conservationists have butted heads with the Navy before. A coalition of organizations and indigenous communities are suing the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) for failing to protect thousands of dolphins, whales, porpoises, seals, and sea lions from the Navy’s other training grounds in the Pacific Northwest. 

It was NMFS, the government agency that manages federal marine waters, that issued permits allowing the Navy to test and train in the Pacific Ocean. The coalition maintains that the agency did this without fully assessing the impacts to endangered species, which qualifies as an illegal authorization—a violation of the Endangered Species Act that has left many species struggling.

Especially vulnerable, says Steve Mashuda, are the 87 resident killer whales that inhabit Puget Sound for half the year, spending the other half foraging along the Washington coast. 

These killer whales are so vulnerable that killing or injuring one single reproductive-aged whale would put the entire population in danger of extinction.

Into this delicate natural world, the Navy blows its piercing whistle.

Should the U.S. Navy test its sonar equipment in the Pacific Ocean?

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