Sound Off: How to Help Save the Whales in So. Cal (UPDATED)

UPDATE 3/8/2013: After hours of public comment and following decades of the Navy dismissing mitigation requirements for sonar and explosion practices, the Coastal Commission unanimously voted to reject the Navy’s consistency permit! Read the full update here.

The U.S. Navy plans to conduct large-scale naval training exercises involving intense mid-frequency sonar pulses and explosives off the California coast from Orange County to San Diego, extending more than 600 nautical miles out to sea for another five years from 2014 to 2019.

The Southern California coast is home to an estimated 34 species of marine mammals, and the impacts of the training activities are particularly threatening to around 20 of these species because of their endangered status or higher predicted sensitivity to noise. While activities will be concentrated in this area of Southern California, impacts could extend out of the range of activity due to the intensity of the sonar and because dolphins and whales are wide-ranging, so the same animals we see here in the Bay may be directly impacted. The Navy’s planned activities will result in more than 9.5 million instances of harm to whales and dolphins – including nearly 2,000 instances of permanent hearing loss or other permanent injury and more than 150 deaths.

Whales and other marine mammals rely on their hearing for orientation and communication- to find food, companions, a mate, and their way through the ocean. Sounds that are thousands of times more powerful than a jet engine, such as those that would result from the proposed activity, can be devastating, and deadly. Man-made sound waves, or acoustic pollution, can drown out the noises that marine mammals rely on for their very survival, causing serious injury and even death. For more information on the impacts of sonar, go to NRDC’s website. In addition, numerous mass strandings and whale deaths across the globe have been linked to military sonar use. According to scientists, dolphins are projected to be the most impacted species, followed by whales and orcas.

Before these training exercises can begin, the Navy must ask the California Coastal Commission to determine that these activities are consistent with California’s Coastal Management Program. Conducting sonar activities more than 9.5 million times that will harm marine mammals without taking adequate steps to significantly reduce the amount of harm to these and other coastal resources cannot be consistent with California’s Coastal Management Program- whose goal is to protect, preserve, and enhance our coastal environment.

The last time the Navy came before the Commission, the Commission found that these training exercises could only be found consistent if the Navy implemented a set of measures to reduce harm to marine mammals. The Navy refused to comply with the Commission’s recommendations and conducted its training exercises without implementing the measures designed to protect California’s marine resources. Stranded whales are the most visible symptom of the deadly impacts of sonar- over the past 40 years, cumulative research across the globe has revealed a correlation between naval sonar activities and decompression sickness in beached marine mammals. Many of these beached whales show evidence of suffering from physical trauma, including bleeding around the brain, ears and other tissues, and large bubbles in their organs. Scientists believe that the Navy’s sonar blasts may drive whales and dolphins to change their dive patterns- surfacing too quickly, resulting in decompression sickness.

The Navy is poised to do the same thing again. We must bolster the resolve of the Commission and ensure that it continues to stand up to the Navy. Please help us tell the California Coastal Commission that the Navy must do more to protect our coastal resources.

Background materials on the Navy’s Sonar and Munitions Program and the Coastal Commission can be found here.