Multi-state coalition strongly criticizes Navy proposal for undersea warfare training range
A dozen conservation organizations – including groups from four Atlantic states – joined forces this week to criticize the Navy's analysis of the environmental impacts of a proposed undersea warfare training area and sonar range off the coast of Georgia and Florida. State agencies in Georgia and Florida have submitted comments expressing similar concerns.
The Navy earlier this year shifted the preferred location for its proposed training range from the Carolinas to an area off southern Georgia and northern Florida. Monday was the deadline for public comment on the Navy's draft environmental impact statement for the proposal.
The Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) filed lengthy comments about the Navy's flawed analysis on behalf of the following groups: Georgia Chapter of the Sierra Club, Georgia Conservancy, Florida Wildlife Federation, First Coast Chapter of Surfrider Foundation, North Carolina Wildlife Federation, North Carolinians for Responsible Use of Sonar, South Carolina Coastal Conservation League, Pamlico Tar River Foundation, PenderWatch & Conservancy, Oceana, Defenders of Wildlife, and Ocean Conservancy.
“The great marine resources that are vital to the state and people of Georgia must be fully considered before the Navy constructs a proposed sonar training range here,” said SELC Staff Attorney Catherine Wannamaker. “While no one wants to stand in the way of national defense, we must make sure that this project has as little environmental impact as possible, and the current proposal falls short of that goal.”
The training range would involve laying a trunk cable from shore 40 nautical miles out to the 500 square nautical mile training area, which would be instrumented with undersea cables and sensor nodes, and used for antisubmarine warfare training. The site overlaps a newly designated protected area for snapper and grouper species and is in close proximity to the only known calving grounds for the North Atlantic right whale, one of the most endangered marine mammals in the world. Right whales spend up to five months in Georgia and Florida coastal waters during calving season. The Navy proposes 470 training exercises annually involving multiple ships, airplanes and helicopters, and various forms of sonar operations, raising a concern about ship strikes and other impacts on calving behavior because of the increased activity in the area.
Among the groups' concerns outlined in their comment letter:
- The Navy failed to adequately address potential impacts of the proposed training range on the right whale, and failed to propose seasonal restrictions on its activities to reduce potential harm to right whales from sonar, ship strikes, and entanglements.
- Vessels and submarines will be passing from Naval bases at Jacksonville and King's Bay through right whale critical habitat to reach the training grounds, raising a strong concern about ship strikes.
- The effects of sonar on marine mammals, sea turtles, and fisheries are poorly understood, and thus the Navy's conclusion that there will be no adverse impacts to these species is unsupported and needs further analysis.
- The Navy's proposal does not adequately assess the risk of entanglements from debris used on the range, or of the proposed on-land construction activities to endangered and threatened sea turtles which nest on Georgia and Florida beaches.
- The Navy plans to leave voluminous amounts of discarded debris (including thousands of sonobuoys, acoustic device countermeasures, torpedo control wires, and air launch accessories) on the sea floor annually with little analysis of the consequences of this debris for whales, sea turtles, fisheries, or habitat.
The Navy plans to release a final environmental study next spring. The Navy is also seeking concurrence from the National Marine Fisheries Service for “incidental take” of marine mammals that may result from the training range as required by the Marine Mammal Protection Act.