Wednesday 20th May
The navy has a job to do. During exercise training, part of that responsibility extends to protecting the environment (both marine and terrestrial).
Remember the common dolphin stranding that happened last summer in Cornwall? We’ve yet to get to the bottom of it, but it’s looking more likely than ever that an international naval exercise occurring locally at the time caused the stranding. Although, as with all navy related strandings to date, where the response is behavioural (rather than something physical and observable like a fishing net entanglement), this is difficult to ‘prove’.
The number of species whose behaviours are affected by navy sonar increases every year. As the list increases so do our concerns about the subtle, long term and chronic effects that the wide spread use of navy sonar is having on the marine species that live in our oceans.
Decreases in sightings of minke whales have already been reported off the west coast of Scotland during naval activities. Minke whales, and other internationally important species, come into Scotland’s rich and productive waters seasonally to feed – affecting this feeding behaviour may not have long term consequences – but we don’t know that. What if there are limited alternative options for foraging? What if a pregnant female can’t find enough food to sustain herself and her unborn calf? (And having seen two porpoises apparently giving birth in our survey area, we have additional reason to worry about this). We can’t say with confidence how the whale and dolphin populations around Scotland are faring because the required level of research has never been done.
On board mitigation measures are a starting point for protection of some animals from injury and death. However they do not protect animals from behavioural responses that may or may not lead to death. Better planning to offer wider protection is required – including avoiding important whale and dolphin habitats altogether (this is the most effective protection mechanism after all!).
Governments need the will to act to truly protect the marine environment. Marine users need to take responsibility for funding (independent) research to ensure that their activities are conducted in an environmentally responsible way. They should conduct full and transparent Environmental Impact Assessment – like those currently being conducted by the US Navy. This will enable the MoD to understand what long term impacts regular and repeated activities involved in routine exercises are potentially having on the marine environment, so that they can begin to address these in a substantial way.
A number of navies have already undertaken considerable work to protect marine wildlife, demonstrating that environmental duty of care does not need to come at the expense of navy training or a country’s security. An ongoing commitment to managing activities and investigating impacts is required by all navies to continue to understand and to minimise impacts on marine wildlife.