Navy releases hefty marine impact study

Times Staff Writer

After losing a series of lawsuits, the Navy for the first time today will release a massive study that examines the potential collateral damage to wildlife when training sailors to use sonar, drop bombs, fire missiles and help Marines storm beaches in Southern California.

The environmental impact statement, fatter than the Los Angeles phone book, comes after federal judges have repeatedly ruled that the Navy failed to do a proper assessment on how to protect whales and dolphins from sonar used to hunt submarines.

The document is likely to be challenged by the California Coastal Commission and environmental groups for failing to recommend adequate environmental safeguards, state officials and lawyers said.


The Navy has stuck with its own safeguards to avoid harming marine mammals, and has not adopted those imposed on this year’s exercises by federal judges, such as keeping sonar-emitting ships at least 12 nautical miles off the coast.

Marine mammals are particularly abundant in California coastal waters and include gray whales that migrate through the area twice each year.

Capt. Neil May of the Navy’s 3rd Fleet in San Diego said the 12-mile coastal buffer would block ships from using sonar when helping the Marine Corps practice landings on the beaches of Camp Pendleton.

To make such exercises more realistic, he said, the Navy would like submarines to try to sneak up on the expeditionary strike groups. Navy commanders say a ship’s best defense against quiet-diesel submarines is to detect them early with mid-frequency active sonar, which can light up objects underwater in a sonic equivalent of a dance floor strobe light illuminating people.

“We will push back on anything that inhibits realistic training or strays from science,” May said.

The Navy has worked with the National Marine Fisheries Service to establish its own set of safety measures, said Alex Stone, project manager of the Pacific Fleet’s environmental report. They include posting lookouts on the bridges of ships to look for marine mammals, reducing the power of sonar when whales are spotted within 1,000 yards, and shutting sonar down when an animal comes within 200 yards.


The California Coastal Commission urged the Navy to expand the safety zone and shut down sonar when animals are spotted within about 2,000 yards.

Analyst Mark Delaplaine doesn’t expect the commission to alter its position. Commissioners want a more precautionary approach, he said.

Joel Reynolds, a lawyer with the Natural Resources Defense Council, expects he will sue the Navy over its safeguards.

“The courts have already found that approach to be woefully inadequate,” he said. “It’s the same old story. The Navy can test and train, but the law requires the Navy to do so in a more environmentally responsible way.”

The Navy’s two-volume report covers far more than sonar. It looks at environmental issues surrounding every training mission in an expanse of ocean that reaches from Los Angeles County to Baja California, and far out to sea. The Southern California Range Complex, as it’s called, includes Santa Catalina, Santa Barbara, San Nicolas and San Clemente islands.

The document looks at exercises that involve firing rounds on Navy-owned San Clemente Island, and considers the possible implications for foxes, lizards and various endangered birds there.


The report estimates Navy training exercises could expose 94,370 marine mammals each year to sonar frequencies loud enough to alter their behavior, potentially injuring or killing as many as 30 marine mammals, including two gray whales, one blue whale, one sperm whale, 11 dolphins and 15 harbor seals.

The Navy’s computer models show that 817 marine mammals would be hit with pressure from underwater blasts from explosives. Of those, 36 would suffer slight injuries, and 12, mostly dolphins and sea lions, would probably be severely injured or killed.

The Navy will hold public hearings at the Oceanside Civic Center Library on April 29, the Coronado Community Center on April 30 and the Long Beach Public Library on May 1.

The draft environmental impact statement is available online at