Navy seeks comments for Gulf of Alaska military training

New research and analysis has prompted the U.S. Navy to re-evaluate the effects of military training on marine mammals and other species in the Gulf of Alaska temporary maritime activities area. Based on that research, the Navy has prepared a draft supplemental Environmental Impact Statement/Overseas Environmental Impact Statement or EIS/OES. That EIS/OIS will update current regulatory permits allowing incidental “takes” of marine mammals.

Last month, the Navy held an open house and a public hearing in Homer and other coastal Alaska communities. Public comments were taken at the hearing, but also can be submitted in writing until Oct. 20.

“This public part of the process is a critical piece of it,” Alex Stone, Gulf of Alaska EIS program manager, U.S. Pacific Fleet, said at the meeting. “We’re glad you’re participating.”

About 30 people attended the Sept. 10 meeting, with seven testifying. Most of them spoke against alternative 2, the Navy’s preferred alternative, particularly against a plan to use active sonar — that is, “pinging” — to detect vessels like submarines. Alternative 1 has less naval activity.

“There exists a body of evidence that human generated sound at its best is altering their behavior and at its worst is killing them,” Shelley Gill, a board member of Eye of the Whale Research, said of the effect of active sonar on whales.

The Navy already has permits to conduct military training in an area about the size of Iowa southwest of Kodiak and the Kenai Peninsula. Those permits expire in 2016. 

In 2011, the Navy, U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Air Force conducted Exercise Northern Edge, joint training in the temporary maritime activities area. That was the same exercise that brought the USS Decatur, an Arleigh-Burke class destroyer, for a visit to Homer in June 2011. Joint training had been planned for 2013 but was canceled.

The next Northern Edge exercise is planned for the summer of 2015. From two to three Navy ships and a submarine, a Coast Guard cutter, civilian ships and Air Force aircraft will participate.

During the workshop, visitors talked with Navy officials and scientists about their research and mitigation measures used to avoid stressing whales and other wildlife. Deborah Boege-Tobin, associate professor of biology at Kachemak Bay Campus, brought students from her marine mammal biology class. A civilian scientist with the Navy, Andrea Balla-Holden, explained that sailors got training in whale identification and stood watches to look for whales during exercises.

“When you see a marine mammal coming in, you shut it down,” Balla-Holden said.

Sailors are motivated, Balla-Holden said. At one briefing on a ship, she said that at the end they cheered, “Save the whales! Save the whales!”

Crews also listen with passive sonar for whale songs, said Cmdr. Damon Wenger of the Pacific Fleet. If whales are spotted or heard, ships stop active sonar and slow down to avoid hitting or coming near whales.

“It’s not our intent to hurt any animals. Even if we spot them, we report them,” he said.

Wenger, a Navy pilot who has done carrier landings, also spoke of the need to do live training. He showed a video of him doing a take-off and landing on a carrier. When a jet lands, it snags a wire to stop. In the video, Wenger’s plane bounced dramatically.

“A simulator can’t do that,” he said.

A big driving force behind the supplemental EIS/OIS is the Navy Acoustic Effects Model, a new approach to estimate potential acoustic effects on marine mammals, Stone said. The Navy collected new information on marine mammal population densities and also has come up with models that help it develop scenarios to see the effect on animals.

“The vast majority of the impacts we predict are these temporary behavioral changes,” Stone said of the effect on whales. “They may hear what we’re doing.”

The Marine Mammal Protection Act uses the term “take” in reference to those kinds of impacts on marine mammals. In her testimony, whale scientist Olga von Ziegesar spoke about what a “take” could mean. Von Ziegesar, director of Eye of the Whale Research, said she also is allowed takes in her research, such as coming within 300 yards to photograph humpback whale flukes as a way to identify and track them.

“The take you’re talking about means you can only approach within 100 yards,” she said in her testimony. “A take does not mean you can kill it.”

Under its draft supplemental EIS/OEIS, the Navy does seek a letter of authorization for activities that, as defined under the Marine Mammal Protection act, may cause levels ranging from disturbing a marine mammal, level B, to injuring it, level A. The Navy does not seek any takes that would kill animals.

In its draft EIS/OEIS, for the first alternative, the Navy predicts about 18,000 takes that would cause disturbances and one injury take. For the second alternative, the Navy predicts 36,000 level B takes and three level A takes.

Comments at September’s hearing about the EIS/OIS expressed concerns about effects on whales. Von Ziegesar mentioned an incident in the Bahamas that resulted in the stranding of beaked whales she said was caused by Navy acoustic exercises.

“The sonar is lethal for marine mammals,” she said. “It has been shown that there are strandings in areas where sonar has been set off.”

Kate Finn questioned the concept of “temporary” effects on whales.

“The acoustics are for whales and the other mammals in the water like sight for us,” she said. “Are we going to lose our sight ‘temporarily’ for months or years?”

Boege-Tobin spoke of the difficulty in observing species like the beaked whales. Beaked whales rarely have been seen alive in the wild, she said, but are known to live in the area where the Navy proposes to train.

“These other whales very rarely come to the surface. It’s hard to detect them when they come around,” she said. “We know they’re here because we’re articulating a skeleton.

Von Ziegesar agreed with that point.

“The thought that you might be able to detect them — I don’t think you could,” she said. “They are way smaller than a submarine and they’re very quiet. They’re almost prehistoric.”

More information on the draft supplemental EIS/OIS is available at www.goaeis.com.

Michael Armstrong can be reached at michael.armstrong@homernews.com.

U.S. Navy Gulf of Alaska Training Activities Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement and Overseas Environmental Impact Statement

Comments are due online or postmarked by Oct. 20 to www.GOAEIS.com or by mail: Naval Facilities Engineering Command Northwest, attn: Ms. Amy Burt, GOA Supplemental EIS/OEIS Project Manager, 1101 Tautog Circle, Suite 203, Silverdale, WA  96315-1101

 

U.S. Navy Gulf of Alaska Training Activities
draft supplemental Environmental Impact Statement and Overseas Environmental Impact Statement

What: An update and re-evaluation of potential impacts from military training activities in the Gulf of Alaska Temporary Maritime Activities Area

Why: To incorporate new science and modeling techniques and improve analysis of potential environmental impacts, particularly on marine mammals

When: As with the 2011 Northern Edge exercises, the U.S. Navy, U.S. Air Force and U.S. Coast Guard in the summer of 2015 will do military training in the Gulf of Alaska involving two-three Navy and Coast Guard vessels, a Navy submarine and aircraft

How: Comments are due online or postmarked by Oct. 20 to www.GOAEIS.com or by mail to Naval Facilities Engineering Command Northwest, attention: Ms. Amy Burt, GOA Supplemental EIS/OEIS Project Manager, 1101 Tautog Circle, Suite 203, Silverdale, WA  96315-1101

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