Beyond the water's edge

Beyond the water's edge

Coastal Commission should be applauded for rejecting the Navy’s bid to conduct high-intensity sonar tests

By John Grula 04/17/2013

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Once in a while, something really cool happens. And when good things occur, we need to recognize, celebrate and reinforce them.  
The cause for celebration this time?

On March 8, all 12 voting members of the California Coastal Commission rejected the US Navy’s plan for an increased use of high-intensity sonar and underwater explosives for training exercises off the coasts of Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego counties.
The reason for the commission’s rejection of the Navy’s plan?  

The increased use of such sonar and underwater explosions will further threaten the lives of whales and other marine mammals, many of which are already endangered due to whaling and other human activities.

The California Coastal Commission was created by a voter initiative in 1972 (Proposition 20), and it was later made permanent by the state Legislature’s adoption of the California Coastal Act of 1976. Citizens at the time were rightfully alarmed that private development was cutting off the public’s access to the 1,100 miles of California’s magnificent coastline, and so they acted. The mission of the Coastal Commission, according to its Web site, is to “Protect, conserve, restore and enhance environmental and human-based resources of the California coast and ocean for environmentally sustainable and prudent use by current and future generations.”

The commission has authority over offshore oil and gas development, and it also has authority over federal activities that may have adverse effects on the coast and the ocean waters within the state’s three-mile jurisdiction. Examples include the impacts of activities by the Army Corps of Engineers, the Department of the Interior (offshore oil drilling) and the Armed Forces, including the Navy.
Even the Navy, which wants to conduct its high-intensity sonar and explosive tests off the Southern California coast from next January through January 2019, estimates its exercises could kill as many as 130 marine mammals and cause hearing loss in 1,600 others, according to a recent report in the Los Angeles Times.

Marine mammals such as cetaceans (whales, dolphins, porpoises and their kin) are highly acoustical, intelligent and beautiful creatures that depend upon sound for vital life functions, such as communication, navigation and feeding. Loss of hearing for a cetacean is effectively a death sentence. Moreover, according to the Times, the Navy’s figures on the harm its activities will cause to marine mammals are gross underestimates.

It’s not as if the Coastal Commission has made no attempt to accommodate the Navy’s rather dubious need to test high-intensity sonar and detonate underwater explosions off the Southern California coast. The commission’s staff has put forward several constructive proposals that would allow the Navy to proceed with its plans while also minimizing the harm it would wreak on cetaceans and other marine mammals. These proposals include requiring the Navy to create safety zones that would guarantee no high-intensity sonar activity near marine sanctuaries and in other coastal areas that experience high concentrations of Blue, Fin, and Gray Whale populations during seasonal migration periods.

In addition, the commission has also said one kilometer (.6 miles) from shore should be off limits to Navy activity to protect Bottlenose Dolphins, according to other news reports. Other recommendations include requiring slower speeds by naval vessels (giving cetaceans more of a chance to dodge ships) and restrictions on night training (when it’s much more difficult to spot cetaceans, and thereby avoid them). Unfortunately, Navy officials have dismissed all of these measures as unnecessary and impractical.

In the past, the Navy has aggressively pursued its intransigence on this issue multiple times and in different ways. For starters, it has always maintained it does not need the commission’s approval for its off-shore training — only that it is required by law to confer with the coastal panel and its staff.

Furthermore, in 2007 and 2009, the Navy simply ignored the commission’s recommendations (that were very similar to the current proposals) and proceeded anyway with its training plans. In 2008, the commission sued the Navy over the matter, which led to a preliminary injunction. However, then-President George W. Bush gave an exemption to the Navy’s training, and later the US Supreme Court overruled the lower court’s decision.

Bullies will usually work every angle to get their way, and the US Navy is no different than any other bully. But our courageous California Coastal Commission is standing up to them once again, and maybe this time it will prevail.

The commission’s recent rejection of the Navy’s plans is by no means the end of this struggle. Negotiations between the Navy and the commission will continue, at least for a while. In the meantime, those of us who agree with the commission need to thank its members and let them know they have our full support.

To do this, visit Whale & Dolphin Watch’s Web site, There you will find more information and a link to their petition to our Coastal Commission.

John Grula, PhD, is affiliated with the Southern California Federation of Scientists.


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