There is a saying that the sword of justice is swift and sharp. In this case, it wasn’t so quick, but it is certainly sharp. Last week, a judge denied our legal challenge over the construction of a $100 million dollar Undersea Warfare Training Site off the coast of Jacksonville, Florida, the only known calving area for critically endangered North Atlantic right whales. We joined a collection of conservation groups in filing the lawsuit over concerns that the US Navy and National Marine Fisheries did not conduct adequate research before authorizing the construction of the site.
While justice may not have been swift (this finding came nearly three years after we originally filed our concerns with the court) the repercussions could quite literally, be sharp in the form of ship strikes. Ship strikes are one of the leading causes of mortality in North Atlantic right whales, a species for which fewer than 500 individuals remain.
One of the things Judge Lisa Godbey Wood noted in her judgement is that the Navy has been conducting military training exercises off Florida for 60 years. We believe that this does not mean it’s safe and she should not assume it has been without incident. According to a NOAA ship strike database when whales are killed from a vessel strike, in most cases the vessel types responsible are not known. And in cases where vessel types are known, nearly a quarter of ship strikes of large whales resulted from military ships. This is not to say that military vessels are at a substantially higher risk than other vessel types, just that they are much better at reporting.
But what it does say is military vessels are not immune to hitting whales, a significant concern given that the vessels operating for this military base would be transiting directly through the only known calving area for this species. After we filed our challenge, the Navy funded aerial surveys of the area and documented the birth of a right whale near the training site. This is only the second time in history that a right whale birth has been documented. Ship traffic in the calving grounds is of particular concern since data suggest female right whales are struck more often, possibly because they must spend more time at the surface with their calves which have undeveloped lung capacities. And they will be transiting through these area a lot as the Navy plans to conduct 470 annual exercises on the training range with up to three vessels and two aircraft.
Vessel strikes are not our only concern, noise pollution has become a major threat to whales and dolphins. Of all their senses, sound is the one on which they rely on most. Once constructed, the Navy’s undersea warfare training range will be the site of intensive, year-round sonar training exercises. Natural Resources Defense Council, also a plaintiff on the lawsuit, has a great video on the effect of underwater noise pollution on whales and dolphins.
The staff and volunteers of the North American office are proud of our military and many of us have family that has, or is serving, currently. But we also believe that the freedom from harm is not exclusive to our nation, or its human inhabitants. We have an obligation to consider the impacts this training site may pose to right whales, or lose them as a species forever. We are not saying that our military should not train, but is next door to right whale critical habitat the only choice? We certainly do not think it is the right one.