Environmental tests have proven that sonar exercises performed by the U.S. Navy confuses marine life, specifically whales and dolphins, so severely that the animals end up either stranding themselves, going deaf, or suffering organ hemorrhaging. Sonar confuses them, often making them swim in different directions and disrupting their foraging and forcing them to abandon their habitats. In some cases, whales breaching the surface too quickly have suffered a form of the bends.
Last year, a federal appeals court sided with the Navy after environmental groups, led by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), challenged its plan to hold undersea warfare training 50 nautical miles off the coast of northeast Florida.
The South Florida Ocean Measurement Facility, located off Port Everglades, offers the Navy a means to test and evaluate mine detection, resources, and response and to perform acoustic measurements as well as radar cross section and infrared signatures.
This, even with the Navy's own draft environmental impact statement for exercises planned in the next four years saying that sonar testing could harm marine mammals 2.8 million times a year between 2014 and 2018.
But the NRDC has released a petition, which has already been signed by tens of thousands of people, that it plans to deliver to U.S. secretary of defense, Chuck Hagel.
For its part, the Navy has admitted that sonar testing directly led to six beached whales in the Bahamas in 2000.
Scientists have confirmed that they've found evidence of nitrogen bubbles expanding in whales that damages their organs whenever whales confuse artificial sonar for the sounds of their prey. Because they take a riskier dive than usual as they forage, the damage from the Navy's sonar has them succumb to the same decompression sickness that afflicts scuba divers when they swim to the surface too quickly.
While science is clearly catching up with the Navy, the Navy has been conducting business as usual, at the risk of torturing and killing mass numbers of marine life.
Although a three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Navy can continue to conduct its testing, the Navy has tried to ease environmentalists' minds by appointing lookouts during its training exercises.
"We're encouraged that the Navy is at least taking steps in the right direction to protect marine life," Zak Smith, an attorney for the NRDC, tells New Times.
The problem with lookouts is that it's an imperfect form of protecting the animals. And, as Smith says, whales are harmed by sonar exercises at much greater distances than originally thought.
"The positive side of the lookouts is that there was a time when the Navy didn't comply at all with our concerns," Smith says. "But now we're at a stage that the Navy, while under no real obligation, are at a place where we can encourage them."
The encouragement comes in the form of a petition asking the Navy to implement safeguards that will protect the animals, while still allowing them to partake in their military exercises.
Part of those safeguards could have the Navy declare specific whale sanctuaries and migration paths off-limits to sonar and explosives without compromising their ability to train. Moreover, the Navy could open dialogue with scientists to get other ideas on how to avoid a catastrophe.
"We've found that there is guidance within the Navy to protect range complexes," Smith says. "A petition like this can garner a push from someone at higher level of position, like Secretary Hagel."
The NDRC has placed its petition, backed by actor Pierce Brosnan, on its website. Smith says that tens of thousands have already signed the petition and that the plan is to deliver the petitions to Hagel.
"Lookouts are a step in the right direction," Smith says. "But that's not enough. That's great for larger exercises, but it's the day-to-day exercises that do the most harm."
According to the most recent reports, computer models estimate a total of 186 whales and dolphins dying or being injured off the East Coast in the coming years.
The report also says there could be as many as 11,267 serious injuries to sea life and 1,89 million minor ones, including hearing loss.
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