Plan for sonar range off Georgia/Florida in dispute as endangering whales

17 11 2008

 

By Steve Patterson | The Times-Union

A Navy plan to build a training range for sonar exercises off Jacksonville’s coast is worrying Florida and Georgia environmental agencies.  Officials in both states have told the Navy that ship traffic from the training range could harm endangered right whales, which spend the winter offshore raising their young.

“The waters offshore of Georgia and northeast Florida are the only known calving ground for the species. Protection of the right whale calving habitat is critical for population recovery,” Georgia Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Noel Holcomb wrote in a response to a draft Navy report on the project.

Today is the start of the whales’ calving season, which lasts until April 15. There are about 350 remaining right whales.

Training less during calving season is the best way to avoid harming them, said recommendations from Holcomb’s agency and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Federal rules protecting right whales treat the area close to Jacksonville’s shoreline as “critical habitat” for the giant mammals. The training range would be about 50 miles offshore, outside that critical zone.

But agencies in both states argued that whales are found throughout the area, not just near the beach. One whale fitted with an electronic monitor in 2005 traveled 73 miles east of shore, the Conservation Commission noted.

The Navy named Jacksonville in September as its top choice for a training site, after weighing four Atlantic coast locations. Ships, submarines, planes and helicopters would train there for anti-submarine warfare.

The 500-square-mile range would be fitted with underwater sensors to track vessels’ movements. That’s supposed to help trainers critique the crews’ performance quickly so they learn more from each exercise. Without such a system, training critiques are sometimes filed weeks later, after reviewers piece together data recorded on each vessel.

Read on here.

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