Facts about increased Navy ocean activity in the Pacific Northwest

Update May 12, 2016: Navy sonar not ruled out in dolphin deaths off Southern California.

April 26, 2016 – Analysis of increases and some impacts as shown in the Navy’s Northwest Training and Testing EIS.

Orcas breaching

Orcas breaching

It’s obvious even to tourists that the increase in Navy activity in our Northwest waters, public lands, and skies is huge. But how big? The West Coast Action Alliance examined the Navy’s Northwest Training and Testing EIS (Environmental Impact Statement) and the Letters of Authorization  for incidental takes of marine mammals issued by NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service. We found some startling numbers. These numbers apply only to the coastal waters of Northern California, Oregon, Washington and Southeast Alaska, as well as inland waters including the San Juan Islands, Puget Sound, Hood Canal, and the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Click on any image to enlarge it.

Screen shot NWTT EIS map

Map from the Navy’s EIS showing the Northwest Training and Testing Range. This does not include any other ranges such as the Electronic Warfare Range on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula.

The NWTT EIS is still open because the Navy has not been able to sign a final Record of Decision (ROD) due to the fact that the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s endangered species consultation is still not finished, seven months after publication of the EIS. This is unprecedented.

First, a comparison of baseline to proposed numbers of activities listed in the October 2015 EIS revealed the following:

72% increase in electronic warfare operations,

50% increase in explosive ordance disposal in Crescent Harbor and Hood Canal,

244% increase in air combat maneuvers (dogfighting)

400% increase in air-to-surface missile exercises (including Olympic National Marine Sanctuary),

400% increase in helicopter tracking exercises,

778% increase in number of torpedoes in inland waters,

3,500% increase in number of sonobuoys,

From none to 284 sonar testing events in inland waters,

From none to 286 “Maritime Security Operations” using 1,320 small-caliber rounds (blanks) in Hood Canal, Dabob Bay, Puget Sound & Strait of Juan de Fuca,

72% increase in chaff dropped from aircraft (contains tiny glass fibers and more than a dozen metals,)

1,150% increase in drone aircraft,

1,150% increase in drone surface vehicles,

1,450% increase in expendable devices. These are just a few.

140915-N-UN259-006 PACIFIC OCEAN (Sept. 15, 2014) The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Stethem (DDG 63) fires a Harpoon missile during a sinking exercise as part of Valiant Shield 2014. Air and sea units from the U.S. Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force participated in the sinking exercise of the ex-USS Fresno to gain proficiency in tactics, targeting and live-firing against a surface target at sea. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Alonzo M. Archer/Released)

PACIFIC OCEAN (Sept. 15, 2014) The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Stethem (DDG 63) fires a Harpoon missile during a sinking exercise as part of Valiant Shield 2014. Air and sea units from the U.S. Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force participated in the sinking exercise of the ex-USS Fresno.

There are no changes to the following:

2 ship sinking exercises each year with 24 bombs, 22 missiles, 80 large caliber rounds and 2 heavyweight high explosive torpedoes,

30 air-to-surface bombing exercises, including in the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary,

160 gunnery exercises with small, medium & large caliber rounds, missiles, and high explosive warheads offshore, includes Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary,

An active-duty Navy pilot confided that fuel dumping incidents occur more often than the public realizes; they happen about once a month.

And there are more.


Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary extends well into to offshore waters; the Navy is exempted from many prohibitions that protect marine species.

Now let’s look at the figures for “takes” to marine mammals. A “take” is a form of harm ranging from disturbance to injury to death. Under the Marine Mammal Protection Act  there are two classifications, called Level A and Level B.  Level B is mostly harassment, and Level A is injury (or death.) Most takes allowed are in the harassment category, but harassment causes behavior changes such as abandonment of feeding, nursing, and migration habitat. If a marine mammal that relies on echolocation to find food can’t hear, it has to work harder to feed itself. If it can’t take in extra food, it loses weight. A study on the increases in metabolism in bottlenose dolphins showed that after the animals had to work harder to find food or be heard, it took another 7 minutes per episode for oxygen consumption to return to normal levels. That translates eventually to starvation if they cannot find enough food to make up the difference.

Sperm whale

Sperm whale

The problem with Level A harassment is in documenting injuries or deaths; frequent mass strandings have occurred days after naval activity in an area, but in nearly every case the Navy disavows being the cause. They do not allow federal wildlife agency experts aboard their ships because of security concerns about civilians; however, civilian fitness instructors are found on many Navy ships. None of the mitigation measures require the Navy to tow hydrophones to listen for marine mammals before commencing exercises; the Navy’s technology for observing whether marine mammals are present is the same that has been used since the 17th century: two lookouts at the bow of the ship.

A recent study found that climate change can affect fur seal pups in their first few months of life. Wetter and windier conditions are predicted for Antarctica in the coming years. Young fur seals will expend more energy keeping warm and, thus, less energy growing and developing. (Photo Credit: Jordan Spielman)

Seal pups. Younger animals are more vulnerable to harassment, and less able to recover from it.

The noise threshold for hearing damage in humans is 85 decibels. For every 10-decibel increase, the intensity of the noise increases by a factor of ten; therefore, a 115-decibel noise, which is roughly what a Growler jet makes when passing overhead at altitude of 1000 feet, is a thousand times louder than the 85-decibel threshold for human hearing damage. Navy sonar is capable of at least 235 decibels at the source. This is over 10 trillion times more intense than the 85-decibel threshold. At a distance of 300 miles away from the source, underwater noise can still be 140 decibels. 140 decibels is sufficient to vibrate and rupture internal organs, and has been assessed by the French government as “a weapon to kill people.”

splashdatamap Hawaiian Humpback feeding-migration areas

Humpback feeding and migration areas

What does this mean? Since the Navy is positioning its ships in whale migration routes and feeding areas without regard to peak times of use for the animals, it means the animals will continue to work harder and to lose weight if they can’t find enough to eat, which is already exacerbated by climate change and decreasing abundance of their food. Since 30 large whales washed up on Alaskan beaches last summer in what NOAA called an “Unusual Mortality Event,” and since it was during the time Navy ships were up there conducting “Operation Northern Edge” sonar and bombing exercises, and since every single dead whale was also emaciated, one has to wonder who in their right mind wouldn’t take steps to reduce harassment of already-stressed animals.


Here are take numbers from the Northwest Training and Testing EIS, for just the waters from Northern California to Southeast Alaska, including Puget Sound and other inland waters, for a 5-year period:

Whales (toothed and baleen)         18,921

Dolphins and porpoises                   843,465

Seals and sea lions                            364,538

Totals:                                               1,226,924

Here are those numbers broken down by NWTT area:

Coastal waters of California, Oregon and Washington:                575,258

Washington inland waters (Puget Sound, Hood Canal):              343,310

Southeast Alaska:                                                                              10,950

Eastern North Pacific (offshore)                                                     21,996

Remember, these numbers do not include takes to endangered and threatened seabirds, fish, sea turtles or terrestrial species impacted by Navy activities, using sonar, explosives, underwater and surface drones, sonobuoys, ships, submarines, aircraft, or troops training on 68 beaches and state parks in western Washington. The numbers also do not include takes for smaller projects such as underwater detonation exercises and/or pile-driving and construction at Port Angeles, Bremerton, Everett, Kitsap, or Whidbey Island, nor does it include impacts from sonar and other acoustic devices at the Keyport Range Complex Expansion, or any impacts brushed over in dozens of Environmental Assessments that split the projects into smaller pieces so they don’t rise to the threshold of a full-blown EIS.


Migration routes for endangered Leatherback Sea Turtles

With regard to the 72% increase in chaff, the EIS says it is “…typically packaged in cylinders approximately 6 in. by 1.5 in. (15.2 cm by 3.8 cm), weighing about 5 oz. (140 g), and containing a few million fibers. Chaff may be deployed from an aircraft or may be launched from a surface vessel. The chaff fibers are approximately the thickness of a human hair (generally 25.4 microns in diameter) and range in length from 0.3 to 2 in. (0.8 to 5.1 cm). The major components of the chaff glass fibers and the aluminum coating are alumina, boron oxide, sodium oxide, potassium oxide, copper, manganese, silicon, iron, zinc,vanadium, titanium, and other metals.”

A 1997 Air Force study reviewed the potential impacts of chaff inhalation on humans, livestock, and other animals and concluded that the fibers are “…too large to be inhaled into the lungs.” Whose lungs? A fiber the thickness of a human hair is certainly inhalable by human beings, even children. And what about marine mammals with upturned and very large breathing holes? The fibers, said the study, were predicted to be deposited in the nose, mouth, or trachea and either swallowed or expelled. Has the public been made aware of the effects of chaff ingestion? Is chaff inhalation or ingestion by marine mammals considered a taking? Not that we could see.

chemring_co chaff UK

Chaff being dropped from a fighter jet. Chaff is often accompanied by flares.

The West Coast Action Alliance noticed some discrepancies among the Letters of Authorization (LOA) issued by NOAA to the Navy for takes; for example, more than 133,000 takes for bottlenose dolphins off the Northern California-Oregon-Washington coast were not listed in the LOA for the Northwest Training and Testing EIS – they were in the LOA for Hawaii-Southern California. Why? We don’t know, but the omission certainly helped to reduce the appearance of large numbers of marine mammal takes in the NWTT area. Curious, we looked at the LOAs for four EISs done in four regions of the North Pacific: the Gulf of Alaska, the Pacific Northwest coast, Hawaii-Southern California, and the Marianas Islands. What we found was shocking.

gray whale breaching

Gray whale

When you consider, for example, that the best estimate for the number of gray whales in the eastern North Pacific is 21,000, and that they migrate up and down the West Coast from Alaska to Mexico, but that the numbers of takes allowed to the Navy in the areas of the Pacific where gray whales might be found is 62,550, it becomes clear that multiple harassment incidents to the same animals throughout their range are not only anticipated but allowed.

Gray whale global distribution

Where gray whales are found

The WCAA also found it interesting and disturbing that neither sonar, bombing, explosives, nor any military activity whatsoever is included on NOAA’s list of threats caused by human impacts. Why, when this this much harm is being done on such a scale?

Takes by species: If you add up all the Navy’s takes of whales, dolphins, porpoises, seals and sea lions for these four regions of the North Pacific for a 5-year period, it is nearly 12 million.

Click here to see the take numbers broken down by individual species and regions, but you might want to be sitting down, it’s a horrifying picture. And remember, it only includes marine mammals.

The Navy prides itself on a concept it calls “Distributed Lethality,” the definition of which is “ …the condition gained by increasing the offensive power of individual components of the surface force (cruisers, destroyers, littoral combat ships [LCSs], amphibious ships, and logistics ships) and then employing them in dispersed offensive formations known as “hunter-killer SAGs.” SAG stands for “Surface Action Group.” The Navy has already sent a “hunter-killer pack of ships” into the Pacific toward Asia, in a clear sign that war games across the globe evidently know no limits to civilians.

It’s also clear that when it comes to wildlife, the Navy distributes lethality very, very well.


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