By ENS Liz Scheimer and ET3 Tyler Kirkland
During our first three days underway in March, RUSSELL’s Sailors successfully completed an Under-Sea Warfare Exercise while a legal battle raged ashore over sonar usage and its impact on marine mammals.
Legal proceedings in California and Hawaii have been ongoing to decide to what extent we may use our sonar capabilities. In November a United States appeals court banned the use of training sonar off the coast of Southern California until better safeguards for marine mammals were in place. A federal judge upheld the decision in February, despite a White House attempt to exempt the Navy.
Everybody understands that we can’t be prepared for war if we can’t train during peace, so the Navy has been granted certain exemptions from requirements of the Marine Mammal Protection Act. High-powered sonar like that used by RUSSELL may harm marine animals, but how and to what extent is still debatable.
Most recently, a court ordered mitigation measures that still allowed us to use sonar during the exercise, but with limitations. The court created “Safety zones” and ordered ships to power down active sonar by 75% when we spot a marine mammal within 1500 meters, which makes detecting the “enemy” a challenge. In addition, as the mammal gets closer, the power is scaled back progressively, until it’s completely turned off at 500 meters.
The ruling also set forth guidelines that require the use of “at least three dedicated NMFS-trained [National Marine Fisheries Service] lookouts”, which initially led to some confusion as we all figured out how to implement the court’s order.
In the end, all of RUSSELL’s Sailors that stand watches where they might observe a marine mammal – approximately 20% of the crew – got special training to identify marine life and report sightings to the ship’s controlling stations. In addition, we stepped up marine lookouts at different areas about decks around the clock, because active sonar operations commence and cease at short notice depending upon the tactical situation.
Despite the extra watches the crew seemed to adapt to the additional workload. After all, nobody really wants to harm any whales. It does lead one to wonder just how many times the “enemy” slipped away, though.