NOAA: Navy training won’t alter or destroy endangered marine species

‘Biological opinion’ says species will likely be adversely affected

NOAA Fisheries has issued their formal opinion on how U.S. Navy sonar, deep-sea, and ordnance training, among others, will affect endangered or threatened species and their habitats in the waters of the Marianas.

In a 520-page “Biological Opinion,” the National Marine Fisheries Service, under NOAA, has found that the training will likely adversely affect these species—which include whales, dolphins, and sea turtles—but will not jeopardize their ability to survive or recover in the wild.

The Service also concludes that the incidental take, or the amounts or levels of “accidental kills” the Navy asks to be permitted, will not jeopardize or destroy these animals and their habitats.

Environmental groups worry that the use of extensive sonar training can result in death, permanent hearing loss, or lung injuries for marine mammals, as well as irreparable disruptions to their feeding, breeding, communicating, resting, and other essential behaviors.

With the recent opinion, a “letter of authorization,” or LOA, from the Service is expected. This will cover proposed training from this year to 2020. Current authorized takes expire on Aug. 3.

“We conclude that Navy training and testing…are likely to adversely affect but will not appreciably reduce the ability of these threatened and endangered species under NMFS’ jurisdiction to survive and recover in the wild,” the Service writes in their official opinion released June 12.

“We conclude that these activities are not likely to jeopardize the continued existence of any endangered or threatened species. The actions also will not result in the destruction of adverse modification of critical habitat during the five-year period…or continuing into the reasonably foreseeable future” given training levels are not exceeded and species status are not changed significantly due to military action, they said.

The biological opinion comes nearly a month after the final environmental impact documents for the Marianas Islands Training and Testing area were put online. It also caps over a year’s worth of formal consultation between the Service and the Navy, which the Navy began with a request March last year. The Service had proposed an extended yearlong consultation timeline due to the “complexity of the proposed action and extent of species potentially affected.”

The biological opinion also summarizes the amount of takes the Navy is asking per year.

For blue, fin, humpback, sei, and sperm whales, the Navy is asking to harass hundreds of these species per year. For humpback whales alone, authorized take levels for “behavioral harassment” are proposed at 860 per year. This is set at 506 for sperm whales, 319 for sei whales, and 28 takes for both blue and fin whales.

For the green turtle, they propose to harass about 2,099 per year. The Navy also asks for authorization to cause permanent hearing loss to one green turtle, lung injury to three green turtles, and the death of another green turtle per year by acoustic or sonar stressors.

The Navy also asks to kill one green turtle through vessel strike. For hawksbill turtles, they set harassment levels at 149 per year, and proposes lung injury for one turtle and mortality for another turtle. For leatherback turtles and loggerhead turtles, they set harassment levels at 61 and 69, respectively, per year.

For endangered coral reefs, the Navy proposes injury and mortality to the reef area around Farallon De Medinilla up to 6.78 square miles and 20.24 square miles, respectively, per year. This damage would come from the Navy’s use of highly explosive bombs, which they are proposing to increase from their current 2,150 bombs per year to well more than 6,000 explosive bombs per year.

Dennis B. Chan | Reporter
Dennis Chan covers education, environment, utilities, and air and seaport issues in the CNMI. He graduated with a degree in English Literature from the University of Guam. Contact him at dennis_chan@saipantribune.com.

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