After two dead fin whales were removed from the hull of HMAS Sydney, an Australian destroyer conducting exercises off the coast of San Diego on May 8, U.S. Navy officials said the service is taking protective action to mitigate environmental risks, according to a statement to Militaire.com.
“Whenever the US Navy trains and / or tests, it uses protective measures that have been developed in coordination with NOAA Fisheries,” a US Pacific Fleet spokesperson told Military.com . “These measures include the use of trained lookouts; reducing the power or shutting down active sonar transmissions when marine mammals are within a predetermined safe range; establishing safe zones around detonations; and maneuver vessels to avoid marine mammals / endangered species. “
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, an agency that shapes international ocean policy and combats threats to natural resources, has taken several steps to prevent ship collisions, including establishing speed restrictions and tracking ship collisions through carcass reviews with the Marine Mammal Stranding Network.
Navy officials issued a statement in the days immediately following the incident, saying, “The Navy takes marine mammal safety seriously and is disheartened by this incident.
In a letter last week, the Center for Biological Diversity announced plans to sue the US Navy and the National Marine Fisheries Service for what it called “violations” of the endangered species law.
The incident is under joint review by US and Australian agencies.
According to federal data, five collisions with ships off the coast of California between 2018 and 2020 involved fin whales.
Although an analysis of data from the International Whaling Commission Ship Collision Database indicates that approximately 239 marine mammals have been injured by ship strikes in U.S. waters since 1820, research from the NOAA suggests that marine mammal populations on the west coast, including California, are stable.
“Many marine mammal stocks in the West Coast region are stable and / or increasing,” NOAA’s Stranding Response and Marine Mammal Health Program research indicates.
Despite all efforts to mitigate environmental damage, the size and speed of ships can contribute to accidental collisions with ships, according to NOAA.
“Marine animals can be difficult for a ship operator to see because they are not always clearly visible from the surface,” said NOAA ship collision information. “And even if the operator can see the animal clearly, neither of them may have time to avoid a collision.
The Navy attaches long-range satellite beacons to fin whales to study their movement patterns and help reduce the risk of collision with ships, according to information from Hawaii-Southern California Training and Testing, or HSTT.
In addition to its own mitigation measures, the Navy is using the early warning system in various parts of the country to reduce collisions with whales, according to a study of ship collisions.
Although injury to mammals is possible when operating large vessels, such as HMAS Sydney, research from HSTT indicates that the majority of incidents occur during training and test activities and do not result in injury. .
“Less than 0.03% of all estimates [incidents] would result in permanent threshold changes or injury… or mortality, ”revealed a 2017 HSTT environmental impact statement.
He adds that temporary changes in animal behavior – including marine mammals recognizing sound, altering their vocalization, and avoiding naval activity – were the most common response, accounting for 99.97% of all interactions.
Available research indicates that “extremely high risk” areas for marine mammals in North America “are primarily attributable to large commercial vessels near major ports.”
Analysis of 134 collisions with a known ship type in a NOAA technical memorandum revealed that Navy ships accounted for 17.1% of collisions with whales; container ships / freighters / freighters, 14.9%; whale watching ships, 14.2%, cruise ships / liners, 12.7%, ferries, 11.9%; Coast Guard vessels, 6.7%; oil companies, 6.0%; pleasure craft and steamboats, 5.2%; fishing boats, 3.0%; and other vessels, 0.75%.
However, the data can be somewhat skewed as Navy and Coast Guard vessels are required to report collisions with animals, while other vessels are not.
“Strikes of large whales by military ships have been reported quite often in US and Canadian waters compared to other types of ships,” the research found. “The data is skewed compared to other types of vessels, however, because in the [U.S.], military vessels are required to report whale strikes as a condition of authorization for certain naval exercises. “
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