Navy testing site may pose risk to endangered whales

Florida isn't known for whale watching, but every winter the coastline offers a haven for endangered North Atlantic right whales. They migrate to warm shallow waters to give birth and nurse little, relatively speaking, one-ton bundles of blubber.

That's right next to where the U.S. Navy wants to conduct anti-submarine training.

The Navy has selected a site bordering a federally protected whale nursery stretching from Savannah to Sebastian for an undersea warfare range, where ships, submarines and aircraft outfitted with powerful sonar can practice hunting subs.

Citing voluminous studies, the Navy concluded that training 58 miles off Jacksonville would rarely, and barely, disturb right whales.

Environmentalists say the Navy has soft-peddled risks from the 500-square-mile range.

Ship strikes already rank as the top right whale killer. The Navy also intends to heavily employ sonar that can disrupt feeding and communication, cause hearing damage and — in extreme cases — trigger mass strandings such as one in the Bahamas that killed six beaked whales in 2000.

"It's one of the worst possible places," said Catherine Wannamaker, an attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, one of 21 groups that contested the choice. "It's right next to the calving grounds for one of the rarest whales in the world."

The groups contend the range poses a disruptive, potentially deadly threat to a whale population numbering no more than 400 — and that's after producing 39 calves last year, the most in decades. Florida and Georgia environmental regulators have raised similar concerns.

The Navy approved the site last month after getting a crucial, if qualified, approval from the National Marine Fisheries Service, the agency responsible for protecting the endangered whales. Though the Navy can build the $100 million range, scheduled to open in 2014, it will need a separate permit to use it.

In the interim, the service said it will reconsider if a whale is struck during work, if monitoring shows more whales than expected in the range or ongoing sonar studies prove more serious risks.


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