Navy to reexamine ocean training after fin whales were likely struck by a visiting destroyer

Naval protocols for training off Southern California and Hawaii will be reviewed again following an investigation into the death of two fin whales found stuck on the hull of an Australian destroyer during a joint training exercise with the U.S. Navy off San Diego.

The Australian destroyer pulled into Naval Base San Diego in May with the two dead whales hanging off its bow.  The smaller whale, a calf, was disposed of in a landfill and the larger was dragged back out to sea off San Diego, but drifted for miles washing up at Bolsa Chica State Beach on May 19. The carcass was then disposed of in a landfill.

Biologists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration confirmed with testing that the two female whales were related – likely mother and daughter.

The Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental advocacy group, requested NOAA, the Pentagon and the U.S. Department of Commerce re-examine Navy training in the Pacific and put in place more protective measures for whales and marine life, threatening a lawsuit in its letter.

Recently, Navy and NOAA officials answered the center’s letter and agreed to reexamine their training protocols.

Officials with NOAA said that based on their “evaluation of the recent vessel strike incident involving the HMAS Sydney, and other relevant new information,” the trigger to reevaluate the Navy’s training in the regions off Southern California and Hawaii had been met.

The Navy has to meet strict guidelines outlined in a permit issued by NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service, which is tasked with addressing the effects of human activities on protected marine species under the authority of the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act. The permits, typically for five-year periods unless there is an issue and NOAA needs to reevaluate, set limits on how many animals can be killed or injured in a specific time period before training has to pause.

The Navy also agreed to the new review, saying it is coordinating with NOAA.

Navy officials said they employ various protective measures such as 24-7 lookouts who stand on the stern and aft of the ships to spot marine life and reducing power and speed when animals are sighted.

Sailors also stop active sonar transmissions when marine mammals are within a predetermined safety range and safety zones are established around detonations and maneuvering vessels. The Navy also limits training when it is breeding, migration and feeding times for specific species.

According to NOAA officials, the need for a new evaluation can arise if the number of whales or marine life killed or injured exceeds allowed levels, if there is information on how training could affect species in the area in a way that was not previously considered, or if there is a new species or critical habit identified.

Kristen Monsell, legal director with the Center for Biological Diversity’s ocean program, said she is pleased the two federal agencies have agreed to further study the training and how current practices may negatively affect the whales and marine life in the area.

“These military activities can wreak havoc on whales, dolphins and other marine mammals through explosions, sonar and ship strikes,” she said. “We hope this process leads to new mitigation measures like slowing ships down in important whale habitat. The Biden administration needs to find a better balance of marine protection with military readiness.”

The letter from the environmental group outlined concerns not only related the two fin whale deaths, but also included new scientific information regarding not only vessel strikes, but other sources of stress on sea life; it also suggested the Navy had expanded its activities and that there is a newly designated critical whale habitat at play.

Biologists with NOAA and the Navy are expected to develop new protocols based on various types of training and areas where the training may happen and decisions should be made within 150 days, per their standard protocols.

“The Navy could choose to adopt additional mitigation measures now and not wait for the new biological opinion, and we certainly hope they do so since endangered whales are at risk now,” Monsell said.

Monsell said her group would like to see even more safeguards put into place for whales and other marine mammals, including slowing vessels to 10 knots or less in important whale habitat areas and additional restrictions on the use of sonar and explosives.

Vessel strikes are a leading cause of whale deaths in California. In January, the Center for Biological Diversity sued the federal government, saying it failed to protect endangered whales from speeding ships, and the group filed a federal petition in April seeking a mandatory 10-knot speed limit.

Federal records document at least 26 whales killed by vessels along the West Coast from 2014 through 2018. Scientists say the actual number of vessel-strike deaths could be 20 times larger than documented since most dead whales sink.

But speeding isn’t the only problem the Center for Biological Diversity sees with the Navy’s training.

“The explosions and sonar used in the Navy’s activities are incredibly harmful to marine mammals,” Monsell said. “These animals rely on hearing for essential behaviors like feeding and breeding. If they can’t hear, they can’t survive.”

The Navy’s training, meant to be as realistic as possible, can include explosions in the water, torpedo tests, use of sonar and high-energy lasers, underwater vehicles and multiple ships moving around at once.

Since 2009, the Navy has had to secure permits from NOAA for its training.

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