The Navy is rolling out its latest plan to manage wildlife in the training ground for the waters from southern California to Hawaii. After years of legal battles, environmentalists worry the Navy is backsliding in its latest plan. KPBS Military Reporter Steve Walsh went on board the USS Higgins and has this report.
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THE NAVY IS ROLLING OUT ITS LATEST PLAN TO MANAGE WILDLIFE FROM SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA TO HAWAII.
KPBS MILITARY REPORTER STEVE WALSH WENT ON BOARD THE U-S-S HIGGINS TO LEARN MORE.
(Whales open sound, bridge sound)
The Navy destroyer USS Higgins navigates the congested waters of southern California. During a recent training mission, they deploy a kingfisher -- a type of active sonar that trails behind the ship on a long teather. They use it to hunt for mines, but the sound can seriously injure whales.
(Whales below deck sound.)
Below deck, the crew monitors a map on a computer screen. Lt. Eileen Allerga says that tells them whether its safe to turn on the sonar, as they leave San Diego Bay.
Lt. Eileen Allerga, USS Higgins
"It came up said there's no restrictions. And it tell us, But, tells you if a whale comes this close to you then make sure you power down sonar by this much."
The Navy created this detailed protocol over several years, in response to lawsuits brought by environmental groups.
Some of the Navy's most intense training happens in these waters between California and Hawaii. Carrier groups train here before going into the Pacific. The Marines practice amphibious landings along the California coast. But these sounds can disrupt marine life. Brett Hartl is with the Center for Biological Diversity.
Brett Hartl, Center for Biological Diversity
"Many marine mammals, so Beaked whales, blue whales, humpback whales, they rely on sound. If they can't hear, they're good as dead. It's the way they communicate. It's the way they find food."
A 2015 settlement in a federal lawsuit required the Navy to reduce the use of active sonar. Certain habitat is also off limits to the military during part of the year, including a blue whale foraging area off the coast of San Diego.
But the Navy's proposed plan loosen some of those restrictions. Alex Stone is the Navy's project manager for the new plan.
Alex Stone, project manager, Navy plan
"Instead of in the context of litigation, we've looked at everything new. In terms of science in terms of what is practical for us to implement as far as mitigation. "
Stone says the new plan still takes into account sensitive habitat and lays out when and where the Navy can use sonar and detonate explosives.
But environmentalists say the plan erases some of the progress they fought for over the years ….Brett Hartl is with the Center for Biological Diversity.
"The Navy has made progress in the past. They have restricted some of their activities in the past. Now they're sort of backsliding a little bit and we're concerned about that because there are reasonable ways of dealing with military training and protecting marine mammals."
Environmentalists want the Navy to limit explosions and sonar in more areas where they know marine mammals congregate at certain times of the year. But that would likely mean fewer exercises close to shore.
The Navy resists moving exercises further out to sea.
At the end of their first day of exercises, the USS Higgins was still close enough to shore that a group of visiting midshipmen from the Naval Academy could go back to San Diego on board small landing craft.
(landing boat sound)
Stone says going farther from shore isn't practical.
"We want to be as efficient as we can with our training. Having our forces steam hundreds of miles even before they can start training doesn't really work well."
The Navy's own studies have shown the impact active sonar has on marine mammals. Even large blue whales will turn away from ships using it.
Most of the time ships use passive sonar, essentially listening to the ocean. But active sonar - which bounces high intensity sound off an object - is more accurate.
The Navy trains spotters to scan the horizon for marine mammals. They're supposed to shutdown exercises if they see a whale breaching nearby.
But Hartl says even trained spotters can't see what's under the water. Species like endangered Beaked Whales in Hawaii aren't easy to locate.
"I've been out on the ocean. I've done whale surveys. Beaked Whales are only 10 to 15 feet long and in a big ocean, it's easy to miss them."
In June, the California Coastal Commission unanimously rejected the Navy's plan. National Marine Fisheries Service is must still approve the plan. The current plan expires December 25th … And the new plan -- like the last one -- could end up in court. Steve Walsh KPBS News.