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SAN DIEGO, July 15, 2021 — The U.S. Navy announced this week that it will reevaluate the impacts of its testing and training exercises on endangered whales off Southern California and Hawaiʻi. The move comes in response to a notice of intent to sue from the Center for Biological Diversity, filed after two dead fin whales were found on the hull of a military destroyer in San Diego in May.
The Center sent the Navy and National Marine Fisheries Service a letter demanding the agencies consult on ways to avoid killing endangered whales. Both agencies have now agreed to do so.
“We’re glad to see the Navy reexamining the harms of its training exercises on these mighty but vulnerable creatures,” said Kristen Monsell, oceans program legal director at the Center. “These military activities can wreak havoc on whales, dolphins and other marine mammals through explosions, sonar and ship strikes. 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 mother fin whale and her calf were apparently killed by an Australian destroyer, which carried their bodies back to port, unaware of the collision, during military exercises with the Navy off the coast of San Diego.
Vessel strikes are a leading cause of whale deaths in California. The Center sued the federal government over its failure to protect endangered whales from speeding ships in January and filed a federal petition in April seeking a mandatory 10-knot speed limit.
Federal records document at least 26 whales killed by vessel strikes along the West Coast from 2014 through 2018. That makes vessel strikes one of the leading human-induced causes of death of large whales. Recent studies have found vessel strikes are even more lethal than previously understood: Scientists say the actual number of vessel-strike deaths could be 20 times larger than documented, since most dead whales sink.
In addition to ship strikes, Navy training activities harm and harass marine mammals millions of times per year with sonar and explosions. Sonar and explosions used during training can deafen marine mammals and interfere with their feeding, breeding and migration patterns. Undersea noise pollution also harms zooplankton, the basic building block of ocean life, causing mortality rates of up to 50%.
The Navy operates under a five-year permit approved in 2018 for Pacific military exercises from Southern California to Hawai‘i that predicts it could kill, injure or harass whales, dolphins and other marine mammals 12.5 million times. That includes 9,248 instances of harm to blue whales and the injuring of 3,346 marine mammals, including 20 humpback whales.
The permit was extended in 2020 for another two years, allowing the Navy to conduct activities and harm more marine mammals until 2025.
The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.7 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places. www.biologicaldiversity.org