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Dive bombing
An underwater collision of military interests and a mammal on the brink of extinction
The North Atlantic Right Whale is endangered

NOT FAR OFF the coast of Georgia, the North Atlantic right whale cruises the blue deep as it’s done for centuries. In tow, scientists, researchers, environmentalists, bureaucrats and animal-lovers hope to glimpse one of only several hundred remaining, to document their movements, and to discover how to keep them alive.

The precarious state of this baleen whale comes at odds with countless seafaring industries and competing uses of the bustling Atlantic seaboard, none more alarming to critics than the U.S. Navy’s proposed Undersea Warfare Training Range (USWTR), which could be in operation off the Georgia/Florida coast as early as 2013.

The Eubalaena glacialis, as it is scientifically known, was named because it was supposedly the “right” whale to hunt, for the oil lucratively harvested from her blubber. She was easy prey due to her tempered and shallow group swim and the thick layer of blubber that kept her afloat postmortem — thus facilitating retrieval.

Large-scale whaling began in the 11th Century, and by the mid-1500s, sailors would travel as much as 3000 miles a year in search of the profitable kill. Centuries later, American whalers continued the tradition, harvesting whale bones for corsets, umbrellas and whips until the late 1800s when it was no longer commercially viable.

By this time, the North Atlantic right whale was near extinction. Where they once numbered hundreds of thousands, there remained only a few dozen.

The right whale still hasn’t managed to rebound in numbers, despite advancements in science, protection under the Endangered Species and Marine Mammal Protection Acts, increased tracking capabilities, improved navigational technologies, and heightened public awareness. The population has held fast, stubborn, since the sunset of the whaling era.

“The North Atlantic right whale is considered to be one of, if not the most endangered of the great whales in the world. At present the population seems to be holding at 300-400 individuals,” says Cathy Sakas, Education Coordinator at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary. Sakas communicates regulations and protocols as they relate to North Atlantic right whales.

“Researchers are unclear as to whether or not this population will ever fully recover, since there are so many factors that may be contributing to the decline in its overall numbers,” she says.

Five of the top ten largest ports in the country are on the east coast, all adjacent to the migratory route of the right whale. These coastal areas are also extensively dragged, netted and hooked daily by commercial fishermen. And the east coast is home to many military bases and operations that generate heavy sea traffic, including nine U.S. Navy homeport stations.

“Ships that ply the waters in and out of eastern ports are the most frequent cause of death for these whales,” explains Sakas. “While large ships are known to be responsible for most deaths, smaller recreational boats are also known to injure and kill calves and even adult whales. Entanglements in derelict fishing gear are also a high cause of mortality that in most cases is a slow gruesome process.”

With a life expectancy of around 60 years, two to six whales are lost each year, many prematurely. Eight deaths were recorded in a 16-month period in 2004 and 2005. Researchers believe additional deaths go unrecorded.

Since the Georgia coast is the only known calving ground for the species, its identification as the preferred site for the undersea training range has some convinced that this could be the end of the line for the North Atlantic right whale.

In 2004, the Navy unveiled plans to locate the range offshore in one of four locations: northeastern Florida, central South Carolina, southeastern North Carolina and northeastern Virginia. Requirements for the site selection include water depth, maneuverability of underwater, surface and air participants, and proximity to homeport and training facilities.

Based on those criteria, the North Carolina site – Cherry Point – was initially preferred.

“Atlantic Fleet units deploy worldwide, and shifts in the military strategic landscape require increased naval capability in the world’s shallow, or littoral, seas,” explains Jene Nissen, acoustics program manager for U.S. Fleet Forces Command.

“Training effectively for these shallow littoral environments requires the availability of realistic conditions in which actual potential combat situations can be adequately simulated.”

The proposed USWTR would cover 500 nautical square miles of airspace, seaspace and seabed. Construction includes as many as 300 sensor nodes and cables along the ocean floor and connecting to onshore facilities via a single, buried trunk cable. The Navy has projected some 470 war-game training exercises annually, each lasting from one to six hours and involving multiple ships and aircraft.

In 2005, the Navy prepared a draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for USWTR. The public was given 90 days to comment. The response was unanticipated. A majority of the 40,000 pages of comments they received were critical, with many objecting to the USWTR’s interference with the migratory path of the right whale.

This year the Navy switched its focus to the northeast Florida site. There’s speculation as to whether the switch was in response to the public outcry at Cherry Point. However, it cannot be coincidental that the Florida site is near to naval installations at Jacksonville and Mayport, Fla., and Kings Bay, Ga.

And as of 2005, all of the Navy’s east coast Seahawk helicopter squadrons are based in Florida, as are the P-3C Orion planes, used for long-range anti-submarine warfare patrols. Both will be instrumental to exercises at the proposed training range.

“The Jacksonville range site... is satisfactory in terms of adequacy of support infrastructure and training efficiency relative to vessel traffic,” explains Nissen. “In terms of operational viability, collocating the range facility in the same area as the aviation community represents the greatest efficiency in applying limited resources to support training.”

In 2008, the Navy prepared a subsequent EIS for the north Florida site, this time with a public comment period of a mere 45 days.

“Despite requests from numerous organizations, individuals, and elected officials, the Navy refused to extend the comment period beyond the 45 days it granted for review of the 2008 draft EIS, a voluminous document over 1000 pages long that the Navy has been working on for over three years,” complains Catherine Wanamaker, attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC).

But 45 days proved sufficient time for yet another outcry, founded on complaints that the re-draft remained riddled with problems and that the second potential site was even more egregious than the first.

“The bottom line is that we are dealing with an extremely endangered species, not only in the marine mammal world, but in the world in general,” says Brad Winn, Coastal Nongame Program Manager with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, Wildlife Resources Division (DNR/WRD).

“There needs to be extreme measures taken to protect the species and the habitat in general where the species exists. Anything that would potentially negatively impact that important habitat needs to be scrutinized and studied carefully previous to that act taking place.”

Every autumn, the female right whale frequents the temperate waters of the Georgia Bight, a stretch of shallows adjacent to the Georgia and Florida coasts. After a nearly one-year gestation period and a more than 1,400 mile journey south averaging six miles per hour, this is where the mother will birth her calf. She will nurse her newborn for a full year and then reserve one more year to fatten for the next pregnancy.

“A female right whale averages a single calf every three to five years with about a 30 year span of reproductive viability,” Sakas says. “So, in those terms, it is no wonder that this particular population has been slow in recovering from the devastation heaped on it during the heavy whaling activity of the 1700’s and 1800’s.”

The full threat to these creatures is apparent when you consider that in 2000 there was only a single documented calf birth. The birth to death ratio highlights the imperative to protect each and every right whale.

“Winter is a particularly critical time for this population since the survival of their species is dependent on successful birthing and then rearing of the calves to reproductive age,” Sakas explains. “With each loss in the population, the gene pool is significantly reduced.”

The calving season spans Nov. 15-April 15, with peak calving season December through March. According to the 2008 Navy EIS, halting training operations during these months is not an option, as “any reduction of training would not allow sailors to achieve satisfactory levels of readiness needed to accomplish their mission.”

“The total population is dependent on this area for calving,” Winn says of the right whale, Georgia’s official state marine mammal. “Seasonality is a big thing – maybe the biggest and most important thing they can do for the right whale. If they can come out of the known window of activity that would be the single greatest thing the Navy could do.”

As argued by the NMFS, the leading cause of death of North Atlantic right whales is vessel collisions. Furthermore, of the 50 dead whales reported in the last 22 years, at least 19 of them were ship strikes. This level of species loss is unprecedented in modern history.

According to the Navy, vessel collisions at the Georgia/Florida site are “not expected” due to the posting of Naval lookouts on all vessels that will be trained to “detect all objects on the surface of the water, including marine mammals.” Concerns have been raised by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the Georgia Wildlife Resources Division that lookouts are not a reasonable preventative to whale collisions with ships.

“What we are all lacking as managers for the species is the ability to detect the animals,” says Winn. “Something the size of a school bus that can appear out of nowhere and disappear just as easily. Some of the statements made by the Navy do not reflect that.”

In the past, NMFS has requested that the Navy and other federal agencies ships adhere to a 10-knot speed limit in right whale presence (naval ships typically transit at 15-17 knots). However the draft EIS did not adopt this limit.

More recently, NOAA issued a regulation requiring large ships to reduce speeds to ten knots in the areas where right whales feed and reproduce, a significant step.

“Studies have shown that when whales are struck by ships that are moving at slower speeds, there is less of a chance that the whale will die from the injuries,” explains Connie Barkley, Director, Public Affairs for NOAA. “We hope that fewer whales will die as a result of this rule.”

However, federally owned or operated vessels are exempt from speed restrictions under some conditions, including vessels engaged in national defense activities.

Ultimately, the crux of the issue might lay with the use of sonar and its perceived effect on marine mammals. The Navy faced a string of court defeats in Hawaii and California over its use of sonar to hunt submarines in training simulations, but appealed those decisions.

Just last week, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Navy’s professed national security imperative to continue sonar testing.

According to NOAA, no studies have directly examined the impacts of mid-frequency active (MFA) sonar on North Atlantic right whales. However, recent studies examining the anatomy of the inner ears of North Atlantic right whales have allowed scientists to indirectly estimate the hearing range of this species, with predictions that North Atlantic right whales can hear sounds in the frequency range produced by MFA sonar.

“We know very little about modes of communication between adult right whales and their calves and there could be communication influences with calves and adult females in these waters,” explains Winn. “We think that mitigation as described by the Navy to this point is inadequate to address concerns regarding potential impacts of their activities.”

There is conclusive evidence that sonar affects a number of other marine mammals, many of which inhabit the Georgia Bight, home to 43 marine mammal species. According to NOAA documents, “Over the past 12 years, there have been five stranding events coincident with military mid-frequency sonar use.”

During these incidents, strandings were reported for as many as 12, 14 and 17 beaked whales, Minke whales and various dolphin species, respectively. Many of the dead whales had auditory structural damage, hemorrhaged ears, blood clots, bleeding eyes, brain injuries, kidney lesions and congestion in the lungs. Many were found to have nitrogen bubble formation, similar to what might be expected in decompression sickness.

As many marine mammals rely on sonar for navigation, it has been presumed that whales affected by the naval sonar lost their bearings entirely or were frantic to escape the noise, rushing to the surface too quickly.

“The effects of sonar on marine mammals, sea turtles, and fisheries are poorly understood, and thus the Navy’s conclusion that there will be no adverse impacts to these species is unsupported and needs further analysis,” says Wanamaker. “Additionally, the Navy’s plans to leave voluminous amounts of discarded debris on the sea floor annually with little analysis of the consequences of this debris for whales, sea turtles, fisheries, or habitat is concerning.”

Anglers and angling organizations are up in arms over the amount of wreckage that will remain on the sea floor, admittedly discarded by the Navy. In their draft EIS, the Navy acknowledges that USWTR operations will result in the deployment and abandonment of thousands of sonobuoys, acoustic device countermeasures, torpedo control wires, and air launch accessories.

“Georgia and Florida’s marine life and fisheries are too important for the Navy to build a sonar testing range before adequately assessing its impacts. And while the danger to all marine mammals in the vicinity of the proposed training range is concerning, the case of right whales is imperative because every single loss may doom the species to extinction,” cautions Will Berson, senior policy analyst for the coastal office of the Georgia Conservancy.

“While no one wants to stand in the way of national defense, we must make sure that such measures are having as little environmental impact as possible, and the current proposal falls short of this goal.”

With the closing of the public comment period, the responsibility lies with the Navy to analyze all submitted statements and update the EIS to address comments. The final EIS is projected to be released and approved in summer 2009. Any construction of the USWTR could begin as early as 2013.

For now, environmentalists, scientists and right whale advocates hold their breath. Opponents take some comfort in the successful rebound of the southern right whale. The Eubalaena australis, cousin to the North Atlantic right, has rebounded from only a few hundred in the 1800s to more than 10,000 today.

Their hopes rest with the Navy’s embrace or rejection of mitigation measures in submitted public comments. The track record is not promising.

“A host of mitigation measures that would render this proposal less harmful to the right whale and other species were offered by commenters in 2005, and summarily rejected by the Navy as not consistent with training missions,” recalls Wanamaker.

A notable recommendation has been that the Navy not conduct training operations during the four to five months of calving season off Florida and Georgia. Other recommendations include surveying the training area before operations, reducing vessel speeds, and the use of passive acoustic monitoring to better locate whales.

Despite serious concerns over the USWTR, the Navy could still play a sizable role in the protection of the species. Their contribution to funding marine research is substantial. For fiscal year 2007-2009, the Navy will provide $26 million annually to research institutions, laboratories, universities and private researchers to study marine mammals. According to NOAA, “The U.S. Navy sponsors 50 percent of all U.S. research concerning the effects of human-generated sound on marine mammals.”

But the question remains, will the Navy abide by scientific conclusions that restrict its operations?

“The Navy has had protective measures in place for right whales since 1997,” says Jene Nissen. “Additionally, as the science progressed to increase our understanding of the potential effects of sound on marine mammals, these protective measures have likewise evolved.”

The obvious compromise – suspending USWTR operations during the months when whales are calving in close proximity – has been declared too restrictive. But when the potential cost is threatened extinction of one species and significant impacts to others, opponents make a strong case for relocating, rescheduling and rethinking naval training operations.

Brad Winn, too, finds conflict with his responsibilities as a manager of the species and the proposals of the Navy’s undersea training range.

“The Georgia and north Florida coastal waters are the most important and sensitive habitat for the 400 remaining North Atlantic right whales in their annual migrations. These southeastern waters support all calving activity for this critically endangered species,” he says.

“If we intend, as a society and nation to fulfill our obligations to this magnificent animal, then we need to be 100 percent sure that any activity we engage in will not negatively impact the integrity of this calving area,” says Winn.

“I do not believe that the Navy’s current mitigation measures adequately address our obligations to these whales.” cs