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NMFS Gives Sonar OK for Atlantic Coast

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NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service has formally given the Navy its seal of approval for the third of the Navy’s “Big 3” sonar training EISs, just in the nick of time as the Navy’s 2-year national security exemption expires.  The Atlantic Fleet Active Sonar Training (AFAST) EIS, along with the recently approved EISs covering Hawaii and Southern California (SOCAL) training ranges, all contain virtually identical analyses of impacts and proposed safety measures, which mirror the “29 Safety Measures” the Navy formally adopted in January 2007 when it received an exemption to the MMPA in order to complete the then-newly-initiated EISs with fewer legal impediments.  The Navy’s sonar nemesis, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) immediately issued a press release that stressed the millions of marine mammals that the EISs predict will hear sonar signals and respond by some behavioral changes (2 million per year, for five years).  NRDC characterizes the 10 million “takes” as “harm caused by high intensity sonar that can range from disorientation, to hearing loss, stranding and death.”  While all these things are indeed possible in the wake of sonar exposure, the Level B Harassments being counted by the Navy include any behavioral response at all; indeed, the vast majority are likely to be minor and fleeting re-orientation or pauses in feeding or vocalizing, at the far reaches of sonar audibility.  Nonetheless, the Navy and NMFS’s permits do not make any attempt to set aside some areas as sonic refuges for marine life, and this insistence on having unfettered freedom to train anywhere, anytime, is likely to be the central bone of contention as the sonar debate continues from here.  The AFAST permit made a tiny nod to concerns about sonar training near the birthing grounds of the critically endangered Northern right whale, but sets no real limits on sonar activity, merely nudging the Navy to “minimize” the use of dipping sonar and “reduce the time spent” doing active sonar training during the key months when right whales are present.  For good measure, NRDC termed the issuance of these rulings in late January as  “midnight rules” meant to skirt oversight by the incoming Obama administration; in so doing, NRDC was discounting the long-established Navy timelines that have targeted EIS completion to meet the 2-year deadline imposed in early 2007.  Several training range EISs are still in process, and while these do not host sonar exercises as regularly as in the big three, it remains to be seen how the Navy will proceed in those ranges, now that its national security exemption has expired. 

Following is the AEI News Digest summary of this story, with links to sources, including the final NMFS rule.

NMFS OK’s Navy Sonar Plans off Atlantic Coast – In the latest of a recent flurry of completion of long-needed Environmental Impact Statements governing Navy sonar training in US coastal training ranges, the NMFS gave it’s official seal of approval to the Navy’s Atlantic Fleet Active Sonar Training EIS. The AFAST ranges (covering nearly the entire eastern seaboard and into the Gulf of Mexico), along with very similar EISs recently approved for Southern California and Hawaii, account for the vast majority of current US sonar training activities. The rules will be in effect for five years, but the Navy will have to provide annual reports and seek a new letter of authorization for its training each year. While the Navy’s EIS stated that it needed full rein to train anywhere, anytime in the AFAST ranges, and that any restrictions would not have a significant impact on the numbers of whales affected, NMFS chose to impose some modest restrictions on sonar activity in parts of the southeast Atlantic between November and April, when endangered right whales give birth (these clauses simply call for the Navy to”minimize” the use of dipping sonar and “reduce the time spent” doing active sonar training). “These new sonar rules were completed in the waning weeks of the Bush administration to prevent review by the Obama administration,” said Joel Reynolds, director of the NRDC’s marine mammal program. “The rules will illegally harm entire populations of whales and dolphins over millions of square miles of ocean and rich marine habitat, and they will do so for years to come.” NRDC notes that the EIS predicts that, between the three sonar training areas noted above, 2 million marine mammals per year will hear sonar transmissions, causing widespread behavioral impacts. In the same week, the Navy released its Record of Decision (the formal adoption of the EIS Preferred Alternative) for both the AFAST and Southern California ranges. Sources: Virginian-Pilot, 1/24/09[READ ARTICLE] Virginian-Pilot, 1/24/09 [READ ARTICLE] Jacksonville News, 1/24/09[READ ARTICLE] AP, 1/23/09 [READ ARTICLE] NRDC Press Release, 1/23/09 [READ PRESS RELEASE] Navy News, 1/23/09 [READ ARTICLE] AFAST Federal Register Notice, 1/27/09[READ ARTICLE] Navy News, 1/21/09 (SOCAL decision) [READ ARTICLE]

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