Navy Remains Committed to Responsible Marine Mammal Research

By Rear Adm. Kevin Slates
Director, Energy & Environmental Readiness Division

President Obama recently issued a proclamation that declared June 2013 as National Oceans Month. Among other things, the proclamation recognizes the vital role the oceans play in supporting our economy, providing food and energy, and enabling national security. It calls upon Americans to do our part to maintain the oceans today and for the future. The proclamation also touches on the National Oceans Policy, which the Navy helped develop, describing a focus on better decision-making through science and data sharing.

Large pod of dolphins off the coast of Virginia. (U.S. EPA photo by Eric Vance)

Large pod of dolphins off the coast of Virginia. (U.S. EPA photo by Eric Vance)

As I mention in a previous blog, the Navy is pursuing permit renewals for our planned training and testing activities off the east coast, Southern California, Hawaii and in the Gulf of Mexico through 2019. These activities are designed to prepare our ships and Sailors to perform our national security mission, which – as an organization that operates forward at sea 24 hours a day, seven days a week – means we are constantly interacting with the ocean environment. To do this responsibly, we have to incorporate scientific data in how we analyze our potential effects. The Navy has made a significant investment for this purpose, committing more than $250 million to marine mammal research projects during the past decade.

The results of these research efforts, which range from defining hearing thresholds for marine species, to using and improving data tags for tracking marine mammal movement and physiology, to creating more accurate mathematical models for predicting how sound moves underwater, have contributed greatly to our understanding of how human activities may affect marine life. However, there is still much more to learn.

Just this past month, a team of researchers from private, academic and Navy labs completed a pilot fast and light marine mammal behavioral response study on our Southern California offshore range using new, highly compact equipment that can be deployed from small rigid hull inflatable boats. Past behavioral response studies used much larger systems that required significant space on large research vessels and more personnel to deploy and operate. Using this compact and less expensive equipment, the researchers at the Southern California offshore range attached data tags to two whales and tracked the animals’ responses to various sounds in an effort to predict how they may react to sonar and other manmade sounds. In July, this team is planning a different type of behavioral response studies in coordination with Navy ships, using actual sonar signals from the Navy vessels. This will be the first time this type of study has ever been attempted. We’re excited and proud to support this type of cutting-edge research, and look forward to seeing the results.

As mentioned in the spring issue of Currents, the Navy’s Living Marine Resources Program recently announced six priority areas for marine research funding from FY 2013-2014. The Naval Facilities Engineering and Expeditionary Warfare Center is currently reviewing pre-proposals from research organizations to meet those needs, and plans to request formal proposals in July.

As we continue to work with the National Marine Fisheries Service to finalize our permits in the coming months, I fully expect critics to debate the effects of our training and testing activities on marine life. While we may not agree on those issues, we can agree that the oceans are important to all of us. Furthermore, I believe the Sailors who depend on this vital training and testing to meet our national defense mission deserve –and would appreciate – acknowledgement that the Navy is a responsible steward of the environment based on what we know now about the oceans.

We will continue working closely with federal agencies, science institutions and other partners in the United States and abroad to develop new science to increase our understanding and guide our decision making. National Oceans Month is a perfect time to highlight the Navy’s focus and investment in this area, and we will look for opportunities to do so this month and beyond.

What do you think? Let us know by commenting below.

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Navy Remains Committed to Responsible Marine Mammal Research