An endangered fin whale surfaces while feeding. The Navy says that training,… (Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles…)
SAN DIEGO — Citing the danger to whales and other sea life, the California Coastal Commission voted unanimously Friday to reject the Navy's plan for increased use of sonar and underwater explosives for training off Southern California.
The vote will not immediately curtail any training, but will set the stage for additional negotiations between the Navy and the commission about how to safeguard marine mammals while permitting military operations in an area of 120,000-plus nautical square miles.
Commission members accused the Navy of providing inadequate scientific data to support its view that damage to the whales and other species would be marginal, and that measures taken in the past — including having sailors watching for whales — have greatly minimized harm to the mammals.
"The Navy's conclusions are not supported by evidence," said commission member Esther Sanchez of the Oceanside City Council.
Members were also upset that Navy officials, before the vote, said that the Navy did not plan to follow the mitigation measures suggested by commission staff members, such as making certain areas off-limits to training.
The Navy's plan "seems like an extraordinary increase [in sonar and other training] when we're at peace, in most places," said commission member Dayna Bochco of Los Angeles.
The commission is charged with protecting California's coast and offshore areas. The Navy maintains that it does not need the panel's approval for its offshore training — only that it is required by law to confer with the panel and its staff.
After the vote, Navy officials promised to resume negotiations with commission staff members about mitigation measures and other items before bringing the issue back to the commission.
Navy Cmdr. John Doney, director of training exercises for the San Diego-based 3rd Fleet, said the increase in training is needed to prepare sailors for a shift in U.S. military emphasis to the Pacific Ocean region and beyond, including areas where the U.S. could be in conflict with North Korea and Iran.
The California coast is the best training area available for the Pacific Fleet for individual ships and multi-vessel task forces, Doney said.
America's adversaries, he said, are building super-quiet submarines and U.S. Navy sailors need to train to detect these submarines through sonar. "I would submit the threat is real and the threat is out there," he said.
The Navy estimated that the training, at most, could kill 130 marine mammals in five years and lead to hearing loss for 1,600, although the environmentalists branded that a gross underestimate.
Michael Jasny, director of the marine mammal project at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the increase in sonar, explosives and other aspects of training would disrupt the foraging and breeding of several kinds of whales and destroy the hearing of many, leaving them to die.
Commission staffers had recommended several mitigation measures in addition to off-limits zones, including restrictions on night training and requiring slower speeds by Navy vessels. But Navy official Alex Stone had said the Navy does not think the measures are needed or practical.
"We have a need to train 24 hours a day," said Stone, environmental program manager for the Pacific Fleet.
Despite their strongly worded criticism of the Navy, several commissioners said they hoped that the commission could avoid suing the Navy, as it did to no avail after a vote in 2007.
The commission staff had recommended approval for the Navy. Stone told commissioners that, although they did not always agree, he and staff members had a good working relationship.