What if you were told the US Navy is legally permitted to harass, injure or kill nearly 12 million whales, dolphins, porpoises, sea lions and seals across the North Pacific Ocean over a five-year period?
It is true, and over one-quarter of every tax dollar you pay is helping to fund it.
A multistate, international citizen watchdog group called the West Coast Action Alliance (WCAA), tabulated numbers that came straight from the Navy's Northwest Training and Testing EIS (environmental impact statement) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) Letters of Authorization for incidental "takes" of marine mammals issued by NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service.
"It is outrageous to think that humans have quantified all of the impacts their actions cause to the marine environment."
A "take" is a form of harm to an animal that ranges from harassment, to injury, and sometimes to death. Many wildlife conservationists see even "takes" that only cause behavior changes as injurious, because chronic harassment of animals that are feeding or breeding can end up harming, or even contributing to their deaths if they are driven out of habitats critical to their survival.
Karen Sullivan, a spokesperson for the WCAA, is a former endangered species biologist and assistant regional director at the US Fish and Wildlife Service; she is now retired.
"The numbers are staggering," she told Truthout, speaking about the number of marine mammals the Navy is permitted to take. "When you realize the same individual animals can be harassed over and over again as they migrate to different areas, there is no mitigation that can make up for these losses except limiting the use of sonar and explosives where these animals are trying to live."
Yet the aforementioned staggering numbers are still lower-end estimates, as they do not include dozens of other military projects in the same areas, such as construction using underwater pile driving, and they only apply to marine mammals, not other species.
According to the WCAA, the numbers "do not include takes to endangered and threatened seabirds, fish, sea turtles or terrestrial species impacted by Navy activities, using sonar, explosives, underwater and surface drones, sonobuoys, ships, submarines, aircraft, or troops training on 68 beaches and state parks in western Washington."
The WCAA has called the numbers "unprecedented," and provided more analysis of naval operations and permits of what is to come that are equally shocking.
The staggering number of "takes" the Navy is permitted to generate is accompanied by an overall increase in a large number of other dangerous activities as well.
Their October 2015 EIS shows increases in the following activities (this is not a complete list):
- A 778 percent increase in number of torpedoes
- A 400 percent increase in air-to-surface missile exercises (including Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary)
- A 1,150 percent increase in drone aircraft
- A 1,150 percent increase in drone surface vehicles
- A 1,450 percent increase in expendable devices
- A 72 percent increase in electronic warfare operations
- A 50 percent increase in explosive ordnance disposal in Crescent Harbor and Hood Canal
- A 244 percent increase in air combat maneuvers (dogfighting)
- A 400 percent increase in helicopter tracking exercises
- A 3,500 percent increase in number of sonobuoys
- From none to 284 sonar testing events in inland waters
The Growler fighter aircraft used in the Navy's electromagnetic warfare training are the loudest aircraft ever built. It is worth noting that the noise threshold for hearing damage in humans is 85 decibels. Similar to the Richter scale used for measuring earthquakes, sound measurements are not linear. For every increase of 10 decibels, the intensity of the noise increases tenfold.
"Is maintaining military readiness to address obscure threats to national security worth defending the oceans to death?"
"Therefore, a 115-decibel noise, which is what a Growler jet makes when passing overhead at an altitude of 1,000 feet, is a thousand times louder than the 85-decibel threshold for hearing damage," the WCAA website explains. Growlers generate 150 decibels at takeoff.
The injurious qualities of high levels of noise are heightened underwater.
"Navy sonar is capable of at least 235 decibels at the source," according to the website. "This is over 10 trillion times more intense than the 85-decibel threshold."
Such intensity means that even at a distance of 300 miles away from the source, underwater noise can still be 140 decibels.
It is worth noting that the level of 140 decibels is sufficient to vibrate and rupture internal organs, and has even been assessed by the French government as "a weapon to kill people."
Hence, many marine mammals with large liquid-filled spaces in their heads for echolocation are particularly susceptible to any and all sonar use by naval exercises. It is, and has been for quite some time now, well known in the scientific community that the Navy's use of sonar can damage and kill marine life.
The Navy is already permitted to also conduct two ship sinking exercises each year while using 24 bombs, 22 missiles, 80 "large caliber" rounds and two "heavyweight" high explosive torpedoes. Obviously, each of these exercises has significant impacts on all marine life in the vicinity in which it takes place.
The Navy is also permitted to conduct 30 air-to-surface bombing exercises and 160 gunnery exercises annually. Additionally, one active-duty Navy pilot confided that "fuel dumping" incidents occur about once every month.
Every piece of data available on the Navy's impacts on wildlife should be taken with a grain of salt -- because chances are, the actual impacts are much greater, according to Emily Stolarcyk, the program manager of the Eyak Preservation Council based in Cordova, Alaska. The council is an environmental and social-justice-oriented nonprofit organization whose primary mission is to protect wild salmon habitat.
Stolarcyk, who is leading the effort to minimize the effects of the naval training exercises in the Gulf of Alaska, believes the Navy's proposed marine training exercises in the northern Pacific reflect intentions and actions that she says are "fallacious and deeply flawed."
"The Navy's massive levels of testing and training for war are helping to make our oceans barren."
"It is outrageous to think that humans have quantified all of the impacts their actions cause to the marine environment," Stolarcyk told Truthout. "With the limited observation practiced, the Navy's activities have proved lethal to large marine species. What about the unknown impacts? What about fish? What about the bottom of the food chain? What about the long-term significance?"
She pointed out that the nearly 12 million "takes" the Navy is permitted to cause do not include proposed "takes" in the Gulf of Alaska. According to Stolarcyk, the Navy is proposing 36,522 "takes" per year in the Gulf of Alaska, with a total of 182,610 over five years. The Letter of Authorization from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration places the total number at over 2 million.
The shocking numbers, along with the relative dearth of advocacy on behalf of the affected animals, does not bode well for the future, according to Connie Gallant, the president of the conservation and restoration group Olympic Forest Coalition, which is based on the Olympic Peninsula of Washington State.
Speaking with Truthout about the incredibly high number of "takes" the Navy is permitted to generate across the northern Pacific, including the Gulf of Alaska, Gallant said, "I am absolutely appalled at seeing these numbers. Where are the 'environmentally concerned' agencies entrusted to protect wildlife and marine mammals?"
Stolarcyk listed some of the marine mammal species that are impacted by the Navy's trainings in the Gulf of Alaska alone:
- North Pacific right whale (endangered species)
- humpback whale (endangered species)
- blue whale (endangered species)
- fin whale (endangered species)
- sei whale (endangered species)
- gray whale (endangered species)
- minke whale
- sperm whale (endangered species)
- killer whale
- Pacific white-sided dolphin
- harbor porpoise
- Dall's porpoise
- Steller sea lion (endangered species)
- California sea lion
- northern fur seal
- northern elephant seal
- harbor seal
- sea otter (endangered species)
"The Navy is blatantly justifying destruction of species and habitats many Americans have worked to keep protected for a long time," Stolarcyk said. "Many wonder, to what end? Is maintaining military readiness to address obscure threats to national security worth defending the oceans to death?"
Gallant is equally confounded by the Navy's actions and these staggering numbers.
"I do wonder why the public has to dig so hard to find these numbers," she said. "Why this isn't front-page news around the world? Because it looks like the military is being given a pass wherever they operate when it comes to harming marine life with sonar and explosives."
It is worth noting that the "technology" the Navy uses to ensure whether marine mammals are present in the vicinity of their exercises is the same "technology" that has been used since the 17th century -- two lookouts at the bow of the ship. The Navy will not allow civilian observers from the US Fish and Wildlife Service (experts) on board during their exercises, nor will they allow the Fish and Wildlife Service to train the Navy's own observers on seabird identification.
"How is it possible to get an accurate count of injuries and lethal takes when the Navy won't allow neutral civilian observers aboard?" Gallant asked. "With the disrespectful way they've treated people in western Washington, how can we trust them to report takes accurately?"
The Navy Responds
Truthout requested comment from the Navy about the nearly 12 million takes it is permitted to cause with its exercises. The Navy was asked to comment on what it was doing to mitigate its potentially harmful activities, as well as on the dramatic increases in those activities, and why the increases are taking place.
Sheila Murray, a Navy deputy public affairs officer for Navy Region Northwest, replied that the numbers cited are "incorrect," and referred Truthout to the exact same naval documents from which those numbers were pulled, but pointed to only the Northwest portion (the Naval Northwest Training and Testing EIS/OEIS).
Murray also referenced the National Marine Fisheries Service Letter of Authorization and Final Rule for the Navy's proposed activities, and told Truthout, "These documents thoroughly describe the Navy's proposed activities, analyze potential environmental impacts using the best available science, and describe the array of mitigations and procedures developed to be protective of marine life."
Truthout asked Sullivan to respond to Murray's claim that the extremely high number of "takes" was "incorrect."
"The sources Ms. Murray suggested are the same ones we used," Sullivan said. "All we did was to grab a calculator and add up the numbers provided by the Navy and NOAA. I rechecked the numbers, and they haven't changed, except for the fact that NOAA's 2011 Letter of Authorization for the Gulf of Alaska issued to the Navy is no longer available online."
A source within the Navy, speaking with Truthout on condition on anonymity, said that the National Marine Fisheries Service and the Navy have "an equally incestuous relationship."
"I've personally sat in on teleconference calls with Ben Laws (NOAA - NMFS Permits and Conservation Division) which discussed the Navy exceeding its Take authorization, exceeding noise levels above what was authorized in their Marine Mammal Protection Act IHA [Incidental Harassment Authorization] permit and failing to re-initiate consultation when the Navy knew of those violations," he said. "The Navy received merely a slap on the wrist and the public was never aware of the true nature of the Take or the violations."
Blatant Disregard and Blue Deserts
Stolarcyk is troubled by the fact that the Navy is allowed to keep a number of other details about its training plans confidential, given the high "take" estimates they've made available to the general public.
"If these are the things they are quietly releasing to the public, there is no telling how horrendous the classified details of these trainings may be," she said.
She is also concerned about the fact that the Navy has plans to conduct more exercises during the month of May, particularly because in the Navy's entire history of conducting training exercises, they have never trained in May in the Gulf of Alaska.
May is prime migratory season for millions of birds, fish and marine mammals through the Gulf of Alaska.
"Many would argue that that is the very worst time of year for the Navy to be out there blasting away with ordnance and sonar," Stolarcyk said. "Additionally, despite many outcries from local communities and tribal groups, the Navy is continuing their exercises, even increasing them in some areas without public consent or consideration."
Jill Silver, a board member of the Olympic Forest Coalition, who has also worked with the Olympic Coast Alliance, another Washington State-based environmental group, told Truthout that the alliance attempted to take on this issue, "but we found that there's no law that constrains the US Navy or trumps 'national security' and we didn't have the capacity to engage the public in an effective and sustained campaign that might have resulted in changes from the congressional level."
Sullivan pointed out an instance where the Navy was held in check by a lawsuit, but that it too had limited scope. "The Navy was sued over similar activities in Southern California-Hawaii waters, where the number of takes went from 150,000 to 2.8 million per year," she explained. "They were ordered by the court to back off from a few areas that are critical for marine mammals, which begs the question: Why wouldn't those prohibitions apply to rich northern waters, too? Regardless, that agreement expires in 2018, and unless the Navy is sued again they probably won't respect the areas currently off limits."
Sullivan is troubled, she said, by the fact that governments already have the technology and weaponry to obliterate the human race -- and countless other species, including marine life -- many times over, and what the Navy is doing exacerbates this risk.
"The Navy's massive levels of testing and training for war are helping to make our oceans barren," she said.
The best estimate for the number of gray whales in the eastern areas of the North Pacific is around 21,000, according to Sullivan.
"But the numbers of 'takes' allowed to the Navy in the areas of the Pacific where gray whales might be found is 62,550," she said. "It becomes clear that multiple harassment incidents to the same animals throughout their range are not only anticipated but allowed."
Stolarcyk pointed out that many human interactions with the oceans are unavoidable; we boat, we fish, people everywhere use and depend on the oceans, and they are invaluable to human life. However, we should not assume that our activities have no consequences -- nor assume that this essential resource can be endlessly exploited.
"The oceans are delicate and finite; we know now that there is a limit to what the seas can provide," Stolarcyk said. "Oceans are not blue deserts [devoid of life] and should not be treated as such; we must tread carefully, for the footprint we leave will be a lasting one."