Friday, February 20, 2009
Imagine a beautiful summer day in the San Juan Islands....calm waters, the echoing blow of killer whales, tiny fins of cavorting porpoises bouncing along the water. Rejuvenating and peaceful, you sit at Lime Kiln State Park embracing the concurrent peace with joy...that is, until the shoreline begins to tremble with the vibrations of afterburners of an E-18 Growler, on a practice mission to simulate jamming enemy radar. Below the flat waters that bring you comfort, missiles fly and sonar resounds, deafening the wildlife that affords you such serenity on shore. Think of the region as a 21rst century combat computer game, only using real planes, ships, munitions and ordinance.
It is no surprise that the Navy has been conducting warfare training exercises in our region for decades, including firing missiles and machine guns, dropping bombs and practicing sonar detection of submarines. But if the Navy has their way in the next month, their training playground and exercises in the Pacific Northwest will be increased with vigor. Plans to expand these operations and others such as adding dummy minefields, scheduling hundreds more training flights and warfare simulations over land and sea, and increasing the use of sonar will add potential threats to endangered and threatened whales and other marine mammals throughout the region. Specifically at risk are the southern resident community of orca whales, whose number have continued to drop to alarming levels. Factoring in to this the Navy's plan to dump depleted uranium in the region, you begin to get the bigger picture.
The Navy says that the pending increases in warfare activities are necessary and their draft environmental impact statement, released Dec. 29, concludes (with no surprise) that expanded training won't harm marine life or the public. But environmental groups, fishermen and some politicians are wary, stating that the military sprang the 1,000-page environmental review of its increased training plan with little notice and has provided only minimal assessment periods or input from residents.
The biggest environmental concern is the Navy's use of midfrequency active sonar, which would significantly increase under the plan. Environmental groups have been engaged in litigation over the sonar use, arguing that it damages whales and other marine mammals that use sound to communicate and navigate. The Navy's plans for increased training would boost potentially harmful mammal sonar exposures from about 110,000 a year to nearly 130,000. But they are quick to predict little damage since they promise to limit sonar use when mammals are spotted near ships and submarines. How do they know when whales are in the area during training exercises? That's right..."trained" spotters on the decks.
At risk are the southern resident orcas and nine marine mammal species listed as threatened or endangered, including seven whales. And thanks to George Bush and more recently, The Supreme Court, it certainly appears as though the Navy's plans may go completely unchallenged despite the incongruity of the situation at hand. There is hope, however. The comment period, once limited to a couple of weeks between January 27 and mid-February, has now been extended to March 11, 2009, to allow for additional public input. Should you be so inclined, please take a look at the Draft Impact Statement (as ugly as it is) and send your comments to the Government. You can also send an email or fill out a comment form online. And in the meantime, enjoy your shellfish and salmon while you still have the chance.