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Navy Spends to Save Whales, Thinks Sonar Issue Overblown

Who would have thought it! It turns out there is money to be made in the Navy budget from saving the whales.

The service has spent about $100 million over the last five years, with $26 million going out the door this year, Rear Adm. Larry Rice, director of the Navy's environmental readiness division, told me a few days ago (with all the tanker news it's been difficult to post on other topics).

If you are looking to tap some of this funding, Navy documents indicate the money has been spent on investigating where the whales and dolphins are, studying the effects of sound on the physiology and behavior of marine mammals, and one that I can't paraphrase: "characterizing man-made underwater sound fields."

Rice spoke Tuesday, one day after the Supreme Court agreed to review a series of lower court rulings that restrict the Navy's use of sonar in training exercises off the California coast. The courts have banned the Navy from using sonar within 2,200 yards of a protected marine mammal. That distance, Rice said, has no basis in science.

Also, the admiral said that the Navy already employs 29 protective measures it instituted eight years ago after the stranding of rare beaked whales in the Bahamas after a Navy exercise. "The Navy's position is that those 29 measures are working," Rice said. He said that the Bahamian stranding occurred in a fairly rare combination of geography and other circumstances, one that the Navy has tried hard to avoid repeating. He added that since the Navy began implementing those measures no one has recorded a "confirmed" marine mammal stranding that resulted from sonar use.

Rice pointed out that "10 or 15 years ago no one thought sonar affected marine mammals" and he admitted that the "Navy was frankly slow to respond" to the issue.

The ship drivers are eager to protect whales and dolphins but they have other priorities as well. "My primary job is to ensure that Navy ships in the Pacific are prepared to fight and win in combat," said Vice Adm. Samuel J. Locklear, commander of the Third Fleet, said in a statement. "These [court] restrictions make it very difficult to conduct the kind of realistic, integrated training exercises that ensure the combat effectiveness of our force."

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