The North Atlantic Right Whale is bigger than a humpback whale and longer than a Greyhound Bus. At present, they are among the most endangered whales in the world with their numbers dwindling to about 350 worldwide. Even though they are protected under the U.S. Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act, there is a new threat to their survival.
In August 2009, the U.S. Navy announced that it would construct its Undersea Warfare Training Range near the only known calving ground for the endangered North Atlantic Right Whale. Right whales gather in their calving grounds off southern Georgia and northern Florida each winter through spring to give birth and raise their calves. It is designated as a critical habitat for the species yet the Navy plans to build a $100 million offshore training range and install an undersea array of cables and sensors for training warships, submarines and aircraft. In 2012, environmentalists sued to block the project, citing its proximity to the endangered whales' calving grounds, but Judge Lisa Godbey Wood ruled in favor of the Navy even though they had not completed required environmental studies on whether operating the range would harm right whales and other endangered species.
Ship strikes and fishing gear entanglement accounted for nearly half of all North Atlantic right whale deaths for the past 40 years but the U.S. Navy brings with it an even greater threat. They plan to perform sonar tests that pose a great danger to both North Atlantic Right Whale populations and more than 40 marine mammal species. Sonar may not sound dangerous, but it could prove deadly for right whales. The sonar used by the Navy generates a high level noise that is used to locate modern hidden submarines. Whales and dolphins are especially receptive to this sonar because they possess a special organ near their brain that allows for the use of low level sonar to travel and communicate via echo-location. However, the military's sonar is so intense that it can cause this special organ to begin bleeding and eventually lead to the animal's death. Whales and dolphins beach themselves when they come into contact with the high level military sonar in an effort to escape the painful and damaging effect. Even at 300 miles away, sonar can reach a level of 140 decibels -100 times louder than the communications used by marine life.
In 2005, more than 30 whales were found beached in North Carolina after military exercises using sonar were conducted by the USS Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Battle Group. Necropsies on the beached whales found bleeding from the ears and brain after just a few days of sonar exposure. According to the Navy, their new Undersea Warfare Training Range would be used for anti-submarine warfare training for periods up to 6 hours about 470 times a year. The simulated warfare would use submarines, surface ships and aircraft, and would include the use of torpedoes and sonar.
Exposing endangered, sensitive marine life to threats from sonar and explosives is unnecessary. The time has come for the Navy to adopt common-sense measures that would protect the North Atlantic Right Whale and all marine mammals during routine training. It is possible to protect these ocean creatures without compromising our military readiness. The Navy could choose to avoid key habitats where right whales are known to migrate and raise their young or they could use satellite technology that is harmless to sea life instead of deadly sonar.
WHAT CAN YOU DO? Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) and their partners have filed an appeal brief with the 11th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in Atlanta asking a federal court to overturn Judge Lisa Godbey Wood's ruling allowing the U.S. Navy to build their Undersea Warfare Training Range close to waters where endangered right whales give birth and raise their calves. The SELC has successfully gone up against the U.S. Navy in previous wildlife protection cases.
The next court ruling in this case will be decided the week of July 15th. Our goal is to help educate as many people as we can about the details regarding Naval sonar use and the threats against our friends in the sea. Below we've listed some ways that you can get involved and make your voice heard. Please act right now to help protect the right whale and all the treasured marine life near this proposed military area.