Concerns grow over Navy sonar training in Gulf of Alaska

Environmentalists say testing of technology could harm sea life

Posted: Sunday, January 17, 2010

Environmentalists and Alaska residents are up in arms over U.S. Navy plans to train with controversial mid-frequency active sonar in the Gulf of Alaska beginning in the summer of 2011.

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Josue L. Escobosa / U.s. Navy File
Josue L. Escobosa / U.s. Navy File

The Navy says the active sonar is necessary for national security. Environmentalists warn the technology could be extremely harmful to marine mammals in the area.

The Navy held meetings throughout Alaska last week to discuss its Gulf of Alaska Training Activities Environmental Impact Statement that lays out three options for the future of the annual training.

"Basically our ultimate proposed action is to accomplish Navy training in the Gulf of Alaska," said Amy Burt, a Navy environmental planner and the project manager for he GOA EIS. "The three alternatives are different ways to accomplish the proposed actions."

The first option is no action, which would maintain the status quo of annual Navy training that takes place during 14-day period between April and October. The second option, which the Navy is calling Alternative 1, would increase the training to a 21-day period between April and October and would include use of mid-frequency active sonar.

"So we would do more training exercises associated with active sonar and also Alternative 1 would accommodate some increased level of training for some new systems and ships that are coming into the fleet," Burt said.

The third option, called Alternative 2, would be the same as Alternative 1 but would include a second 21-day training exercise and the possibility of a sinking exercise during each three-week period. The Navy would take decommissioned ships and clean them to Environmental Protection Agency standards that would be used as live fire target practice at least 50 nautical miles from shore and sunk in at least 6,000 feet of water.

The Navy presently conducts a joint exercise each summer with the U.S. Army and U.S. Air Force that it calls the Northern Edge exercise. Part of the exercise takes place in an area designated as the Gulf of Alaska Temporary Maritime Activities Area that is the shape of a polygon and is approximately 300 nautical miles in length and 150 nautical miles in width located south of Prince William Sound and east of Kodiak Island.

The use of mid-frequency active sonar has become a highly controversial issue in environmental circles because it is believed to have detrimental effects on marine mammals, particularly whales.

"The active sonar is something that we're pretty concerned about," said Jon Warrenchuck, an ocean scientist for the nonprofit international marine conservation and advocacy organization. "These exercises are planned off of Kodiak and it's right beside critical habitat for Northern Right whales and there are about 100 of these left in Alaska, they estimate. They're, if not the rarest, probably one of the rarest marine mammals in the world. This is one of the areas they've identified as critical habitat for them. It's right beside the proposed training area."

Sheila Murray, the regional environmental public affairs officer for the Navy, said there is a possibility that the mid-frequency active sonar could have adverse effects on marine mammals but said the Navy tries to avoid any type of interaction with marine mammals wherever possible. The sailors go through extensive training and there are 29 protective measures in place to minimize impacts, which includes flyovers and turning off sonar within 200 yards of marine mammals, she said.

"The Navy does a lot of things to avoid any type of interaction with any type of marine mammal," Murray said.

Tina Brown, a wildlife activist who attended the meeting in Juneau last week, said many people have concerns about how damaging the sonar potentially is to marine mammals.

"Even the people who were at the hearing to give us information did not know for the sure the effect that Navy sonar testing would have on these animals," she said. "They know that whales have been beached in areas where sonar has taken place. They don't always know that sonar caused it."

Murray said there has been some misperception in the public from language used in the EIS that people interpret to mean that anywhere from thousands to millions of marine mammals could be harmed. The Marine Mammal Protection Act requires the Navy to estimate how many "takes" it expects with the sonar.

"It does not necessarily mean kill," she said. "It's anything that changes that marine mammal's behavior. That seems to be the one thing the public doesn't seem to understand. It's not Navy language, it's regulatory language."

Some people have estimated that millions of marine mammals could die from the sonar, which Murray said is not what the EIS actually says.

"People seem to think that that is the number of marine mammals that the Navy anticipates some type of mortality happening to and that's far from the truth," she said.

The mid-frequency active sonar is believed to scare whales and could cause them to run aground, but it has been difficult to prove in the past because the Navy hasn't always had a strong track record of disclosing what its been doing, Warrenchuck said.

"There's a lot of scientific evidence out there that this type of sonar can affect whales, and particularly those that have the big melons," he said. "And 'melon' is actually a biological term for kind of the protruding head of certain whales like sperm whales or some of the beaked whales. Basically they have this big fluid-filled organ that they use for echolocation and communication and navigation and things."

Warrenchuck and Brown also mentioned concerns about the increased pollution to the area if more training is approved and more military ordinance is used and discarded in the Gulf of Alaska.

Murray said the sonar is vital for the Navy to use to protect the country.

"It actually is the only effective method for detecting any kind of threats from any modern ultra quiet submarines that countries that may not be friendly with the United States may use," she said. "There are a lot of other subs out there that use it and that is the only way the Navy can actually detect them."

Brown said she is not opposed to the Navy training, she's just opposed to where, when and how it is planning to train.

"I understand we are at war," she said. "This is not the issue. The issue is choosing a place that has such an abundance of marine wildlife and choosing that place at the time when that wildlife is most abundant. In my view that is irresponsible."

The public comment period for the draft EIS ends Jan. 25 and will then be revised by the project team. A final EIS is expected sometime in the late fall or early winter, which will also have a public comment period. A Record of Decision is expected sometime in late 2010 or early 2011 that will decide on one of the three training options.

"The summer season of 2011 would be the first time we could do anything under the EIS," Burt said.

People can make comments online at www.gulfofalaskanavyeis.com until Jan. 25 or can send a letter to the Navy by that date.

Warrenchuck said he hopes the Navy will ultimately decide on the first option and not change its training to include sonar in the Gulf of Alaska.

"We're not at war with the whales and so we would really like the Navy to minimize their impact on whales and marine mammals," he said.

• Contact reporter Eric Morrison at 523-2269 or eric.morrison@juneauempire.com.



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