SAN DIEGO - Environmentalists say that a five-year training program proposed by the Navy off the coast of Southern California would ramp up sonar activity and underwater detonations that could pose a threat to endangered marine mammals like the blue whale.
The California Coastal Commission is expected to rule at a hearing in San Diego on Friday on whether more protective measures are needed before the program begins in January and runs through 2019.
In its proposal, the Navy estimates the increased activity would have a negligible impact on marine populations.
"We believe mitigation measures that are highly effective have been in place for years," said Alex Stone, who directs the Navy's program.
The Navy's testing area encompasses 120,000 nautical square miles of the Pacific off the Southern California coast and includes a corridor between the state and Hawaii, among other areas.
The commission's staff has recommended that approval be contingent on a list of conditions. They include requiring that the Navy create safety zones that would guarantee no high-intensity sonar activity near marine sanctuaries and protected areas and in spots that experience a high concentration of blue, fin and gray whales seasonally. The staff says a kilometer from shore should also be off-limits to protect bottlenose dolphins.
Stone declined to comment on the conditions until after he testifies at Friday's hearing.
The commission set out similar conditions to the Navy in 2007 and 2009 but the Navy refused to accept them both times.
The commission sued the Navy over the matter, leading to a preliminary injunction in 2008, though then-President George W. Bush gave an exemption for the training. The U.S. Supreme Court later overturned the lower court's decision.
"Twice the commission has approved the Navy's plans but set reasonable conditions to protect coastal wildlife, and twice the Navy has spurned the commission's recommendations," said Michael Jasny with the Natural Resources Defense Council. "We think this time the commission should give us a stronger message and object to the Navy proposal and ask them to return with a more responsible plan that achieves military readiness and protects the coastal resources of this state."
Jasny's organization and three dozen others say they want the Navy to avoid important habitat for vulnerable species, like endangered blue and fin whales, beaked whales, and migrating gray whales. They also want the Navy to not use sonar training and underwater detonations at night, when marine mammals are extremely hard to detect. And they want the Navy to be required to use its own acoustic monitoring network to help detect marine mammals.
They also say that from May through October ships should slow to 10 knots in areas with baleen whales, to avoid hitting them.
Scientists say there is still much to be learned about how much sonar activity affects marine animals. Studies have shown some species such as beaked whales may be adversely affected by some forms of it.
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