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Who Will Win the Whale Wars?
by J. F. Kelly, Jr. 1/24/08

President George W. Bush weighed in on the sonar vs. the whales controversy and came down solidly on the side of common sense and national defense interests by acting to exempt the Navy from a federal judge’s restrictions on the use of sonar in waters off California. The federal government asked the 9th District Court of Appeals to recognize the exemption in order to permit the Navy to continue its antisubmarine training in the operating areas off Southern California in proximity to San Diego, the Pacific Fleet’s largest homeport and training complex.

J.F. Kelly, Jr.

J.F. Kelly, Jr. is a retired Navy Captain and bank executive who writes on current events and military subjects. He is a resident of Coronado, California. [go to Kelly index]

The reaction from the bird, bug and bunny people was immediate and shrill, accusing the president of exceeding his authority and the Navy of waging war on whales and other marine mammals. Rubbish. The president, the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces, was acting in the security interests of the nation. But then what would some of these environmental extremists know or care about that? And the Navy, which has shared the oceans of the world with whales and other sea mammals amicably for centuries, is not the whales’ enemy. The nations that maintain the whaling fleets have that dubious distinction. The free Willy, pro-whale extremists would do us a favor by laying off the Navy and directing their ire against the whaling fleets which will exterminate, not just inconvenience, the whales.

Speaking of convenience, a senior attorney for the National Resources Defense Council, which sued the Navy over sonar use, was quoted as saying:  “This is not a national security issue. The Navy doesn’t have to harm whales to train effectively with sonar. It simply chooses to do so for the sake of convenience.”  Well, one could argue that the whales, highly intelligent creatures that they are, have virtually unlimited access to all the world’s vast oceans and are probably able to share the relatively small portions of them that the Navy finds necessary to use as operating areas. The Navy, on the other hand, faces real constraints on time, fuel and the availability of training services in the vicinity of its training complexes, not to mention the need to minimize unnecessary time away from homeports for its crews beyond their already heavy operating commitments and lengthy deployments overseas.

California officials complained that it was the first time that a president had overridden the U.S. Coastal Zone Management Act of 1972 which empowers states to review federal actions that impact their coastal resources (which raises questions regarding who really owns the resources, the nation or the states?). In any event, the military has been exempted in the past from mandatory compliance with certain environmental restrictions when they impacted military readiness and degraded national defense. The Navy Department has, nevertheless, consistently endeavored to comply with environmental and conservation concerns and has done an enviable job compared with most other private and public organizations.

Camp Pendleton provides a prime example. This sprawling facility is essential to providing combat training to Navy-Marine amphibious forces and is uniquely located in terms of climate, topography and proximity to other Navy and Marine forces. Yet, so many acres have been rendered unusable for training because of civilian encroachment and voluntary compliance with measures for protecting obscure endangered species, some dwelling in mud puddles that environmentalist refer to as vernal pools, that this vital facility is scarcely able to accommodate a regimental-sized exercise. Live-fire training ranges, including the shore bombardment range at Vieques, have been shut down because of the actions of environmental extremists. All of this comes at great cost to the taxpayers. Scarce defense dollars must be devoted to compliance instead of training in war-fighting and safe equipment operations.

Most of these endangered species are not exactly household names and the average American would probably question whether their importance to mankind justifies the enormous expense of protecting them. Species, after all, come and go. Life goes on without the dinosaurs. Personally, I have trouble harming any of God’s creatures, large or small. I won’t even kill a spider. I draw the line, however, at flies, termites, cockroaches, rats, etc. I do like to eat meat and seafood. I hope that doesn’t make me a bad person. But I digress.

The controversy over the effects of sonar transmissions on whales and other sea mammals has gone on for years. It is now generally conceded that studies have shown some adverse effects. There are, therefore, dozens of restrictions and protective measures already in effect. Navy ships train lookouts and other members of their bridge watch teams to be alert for whales and ships will act to avoid them. Even shore-based ship handling simulators (I teach at one) incorporate whale detection and avoidance in the training scenarios.

This, predictably, is not enough for the ecology extremists, some of whom wouldn’t recognize a national security issue if it bit them on the nose. For them, nothing is ever enough. The executive director of the Coastal Commission was quoted as saying “It’s just another example of avoiding environmental protection under the banner of fear.” By fear, he presumably meant the (very real) fear of an underwater attack against our multi-billion dollar warships. One wonders from whence he obtained his insight into naval intelligence and threat analysis.

California’s thoroughly liberal, anti-defense senator. Barbara Boxer, said, “Unfortunately, this Bush administration decision will send this case right back into court, where more taxpayer dollars will be wasted defending a misguided decision.” Here’s the real misguided decision: placing greater emphasis on the chance of causing moderate damage to a relative few animals over verifiable defense interests.

The restrictions on sonar use, if re-imposed on our Navy, will, of course, be respected by other nations including potential adversaries who could some day operate in our coastal waters with less risk of detection. Right. Just like the nations operating those whaling fleets will agree to halt operations for the sake of the remaining whales. CRO

copyright 2008 J. F. Kelly, Jr.



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