The US Navy has announced its decision to proceed with construction of a 500-square mile sonar testing range off the Jacksonville, FL coast. Over 470 exercises will take place there every year, involving submarines, ships and aircraft in simulated war games. The proposed location is next to the only calving ground of the highly endangered North Atlantic right whale and is home to a host of other marine animals. The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has concluded that the “loss of even a single individual right whale may contribute to the extinction of the species” yet the Navy is intent upon proceeding, despite not having completed surveys of whales in the area or obtaining authorization from NOAA Fisheries Service for its operations.
Ship strikes are the single largest cause of death for endangered right whales yet Navy ships—exempt from speed restrictions recently implemented to protect these whales—will pass through the calving ground when traveling to the range from bases at Mayport, FL, and Kings Bay, GA. Low flying aircraft are also a source of harassment to right whale mothers and calves who use these shallow, calm waters as a nursing ground each winter. The Navy’s plans include deployment of non-explosive exercise torpedoes, target submarine simulators, and various forms of active and passive sonar. An assortment of debris will be introduced into the area and left behind, including 3,000 sonobuoys per year, exercise torpedoes and control wires, parachute assemblages, and ballast.
The Jacksonville range is one of many plans by the Navy to expand its training areas with virtually every US coast affected. In all, the Navy anticipates more than 2.3 million ‘takes’ of marine mammals per year (in addition to injury and death, a Navy 'take' includes significant disruptions in marine mammal foraging, breeding, and other essential behaviors).
AWI opposes construction of the Jacksonville range and is urging NOAA to identify and impose strict measures to minimize impacts on and improve monitoring of affected marine animal populations. Such measures include establishing firm seasonal or geographic sonar exclusion areas to protect vulnerable species and habitat, which scientists have identified as the most effective available means of reducing harm.