HANCOCK – The state has to make a decision in the very near future which will affect the chances of recovery for a number of endangered and threatened species, as well as the overall ecological health of its coastal waters.
Here is the question that officials must answer: Do they agree with the Navy’s assertion that its Atlantic Fleet Training and Testing activities are consistent with the enforceable policies of Maine’s Coastal Program?
The Navy’s activities involve the use of explosives and mid-frequency sonar, and will take place in the Gulf of Mexico and along the Atlantic coast, including in waters off Maine.
The Navy has predicted that it will harm, or “take,” whales, dolphins and other marine mammals almost 19 million times over the next five years. A “take” is harm done that ranges from significant behavioral impacts such as habitat abandonment, to death.
These takes would consist of over 2 million instances of temporary hearing loss, and over 10,000 instances of permanent hearing loss, almost 6,000 lung injuries and over 800 deaths.
The scale of this unprecedented assault on marine mammals and other marine life will be absolutely enormous! It is also absolutely unnecessary.
There is much the Navy could do to reduce the impacts. It could, for example, simply avoid training and testing in areas of important habitat for vulnerable species at certain times of the year. This is widely regarded as one of the best ways of mitigating harm.
But the Navy does not intend on doing that. Nor will it engage in a number of other available measures that could greatly reduce impacts without limiting its ability to train and test in any substantial way.
Some of the animals that are predicted to be harmed by the Navy’s activities are from species listed by the Maine Endangered Species Act, one of the laws at the core of the Maine Coastal Program.
The North Atlantic right whale is one of the species. It is already critically endangered, hanging on to existence by only the finest of threads. The National Marine Fisheries Service has stated, “the loss of even a single individual may contribute to the extinction of the species.”
Yet the Navy estimates that training and testing activities will cause over 450 instances of temporary hearing loss in right whales over a five-year period. It is sometimes said that a deaf whale is a dead whale, referring to the importance of a whale’s ability to hear sounds necessary for its survival, such as the sounds of approaching predators or ships. If a whale cannot hear those sounds, it may not survive.
While the Navy’s predicted “takes” for right whales are for incidents of temporary hearing loss, and not permanent hearing loss, impacts such as ship strikes may still occur even within those limited periods of time when the whale’s ability to hear has been compromised by the Navy’s activities.
In short, 450 instances of temporary hearing loss in right whales is no small matter. Should even one whale get struck by a ship and die as a result of its temporary loss in hearing ability, that may well contribute to the ultimate extinction of this magnificent animal.
In addition to the right whale, seven other endangered whales and sea turtles will also be harmed by the Navy’s activities. The harm predicted for some of these includes injuries and mortalities.
Obviously, exposing endangered and threatened animals to activities that are predicted to disrupt, injure and kill them will not improve the species’ chances of recovery. It is no overstatement to say that the Navy’s activities are very much at odds with the purpose and intent of the endangered species act.
In waging what can reasonably be described as an assault upon marine life, the Navy’s testing and training activities are not consistent with another law at the core of the Maine Coastal Program, the Coastal Management Policies Act, in so far as they will inevitably diminish the ecological integrity and diversity of marine communities and habitats that the law is supposed to preserve and improve upon.
The Maine Legislature has declared that the Maine coast is an asset of immeasurable value to the people of the state and the nation. We wholeheartedly agree, and encourage the state to do whatever it can within its powers, to get the Navy to take appropriate measures that will help to ensure that Maine’s coast, and coastal resources, are protected now and for future generations.