SEATTLE — Several conservation groups and tribes are suing the National Marine Fisheries Service, contending the federal agency has unlawfully allowed harm to marine mammals by permitting the Navy to expand sonar use and carry out underwater practice drills.
The Navy has been conducting tests along the Northwest coast for the past 60 years in a section of open water about the size of California.
Two years ago the Navy applied for a permit to increase weapons testing and submarine training there. That got the attention of environmental advocates who said the increased sonar use would be harmful for marine life.
“We just had a lot of concern about what the implications might be of that expansion,” says Tom Bancroft, director of People for Puget Sound and of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. “We just don’t think that they did a good job of protecting wildlife and marine organisms in the permit that they released so we didn’t have much choice but to take a lawsuit at this point.”
The National Marine Fisheries Service granted the permit with the requirement that the sonar testing be conducted at lower intensities and for short periods of time. No whale mortality was expected.
Environmental groups argue that even though the whales may not be dying, their behavior changes when loud sonar tests are underway.
Here’s a cut from a video shot in 2003 in the Haro Strait, which separates San Juan Island in Washington from Canada’s Gulf Islands and Vancouver Island:
A navy destroyer is in the distance and a pod of orcas swims by in the foreground. Sonar is audible in the background in the video, says its producer Ken Balcomb, the head of the Center for Whale Research.
“For an extended period of time these whales stayed near the surface,” Balcomb says. “They didn’t go diving and foraging as they had been before the ship showed up. They just kept changing direction all the time as if they were seeking some direction that would be out of this sound field.”
The National Marine Fisheries Service said it has no comment at this time but provided a link to the website with the full permit that was approved in 2010.
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