January 28, 2010

Environmentalists sue Navy over training area off Florida's east coast


A dozen environmental groups filed suit today to stop a U.S. Navy plan to build its $100 million Undersea Warfare Training Range about 50 miles east of Jacksonville, near known calving grounds for the endangered North Atlantic right whale.

The legal challenge alleges that the Navy and the National Marine Fisheries Service failed to study the impacts that building and operating the range would have on right whales.

They fear the sonar used at the range could damage to the giant mammals’ ability to navigate, increasing the risk of beaching and death as they migrate and calve along Florida’s east coast — including the Space Coast — primarily in January and February.

“Right whales shouldn’t be subjected to the threats that accompany this range — ship strikes, entanglement and noise disturbance — in the only place in the world where vulnerable females give birth to and care for their calves,” Catherine Wannamaker, an attorney with Southern Environmental Law Center, said in a release. “While we recognize the Navy’s need to train, there are ways to accommodate that need without introducing multiple risks of harm into such a sensitive area.”

Military officials say they need the range to prepare for hunting foreign subs and can avoid harm to the whales. And the area off Jacksonville, they say, is ideal for training sailors to hunt quiet, hard-to-detect diesel subs, given its similar shallow waters — 120 to 900 feet deep — as the South China and Arabian seas.

The environmental groups filed their challenge in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Georgia, Brunswick division.

The groups include the Florida Wildlife Federation, Defenders of Wildlife, Earthjustice, Natural Resources Defense Council, The Humane Society of the United States and others.

The Navy would line the ocean floor with a network of undersea cables and up to 300 sonar devices that can transmit and receive sounds.

Environmentalists say these types of sonar systems have been involved in several mass marine mammal die-offs in the past.

Beyond causing potentially fatal inner ear damage, sonar can inhibit the whale’s ability to communicate, masking calls from potential mates and separating calves from mothers. It also can cause chronic stress and lower rates of reproduction.

Right whales are among the most endangered marine mammals in the world, with 300 to 400 remaining.

Early whalers gave them their name because they were the “right” whales to kill. They swim close to shore, and slow, and float when dead, making them easy to hunt. They yielded large amounts of oil and baleen — an elastic substance once used in buggy whips and women’s corsets.