Under the Sea


Animals don’t have to be the subjects of research to be victims of research.

According to a 2018 proposal by the U.S. Navy, its training exercises in the Pacific Ocean could kill or bring harm to 12.5 million marine mammals over the next five years. These exercises would affect millions of sea lions, harbor seals, dolphins, porpoises and whales—all in the name of scientific and military research.

The U.S. Navy and U.S Air Force carry out countless military readiness activity tests in the Pacific Ocean, Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean, as well as along the Alaskan coasts multiple times a year. Each of these endless training activities endangers thousands of animals, with little or no consideration of the ethical consequences. As a result of the Navy’s sonar tests, ocean-dwelling animals suffer hearing damage and behavioral disturbances that leave them disoriented, wrenched away from their pods and stranded, left to die up and down both coasts of the United States.

The Inadequacy of the Marine Mammal Protection Act

The federal Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), passed in 1972, was enacted to protect marine mammals from human activities that can endanger, or even cause the extinction of, these animals. The lives and habitats of marine mammals, including whales, dolphins, porpoises, sea lions, manatees, sea otters and even polar bears, are meant to be protected by the MMPA. However, due to the routine granting of exemptions by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which oversees administration of the MMPA, the law created to protect marine mammals is disregarded for military exercises and private industry.

Under the MMPA, it is illegal to feed, hunt, capture or harass (more on what that means in a moment) any marine mammal without the government’s prior approval. Therefore, to pursue activities that could negatively affect these animals, private industries and government agencies must apply for permits exempting them from the law and obtain letters of authorization from NOAA to allow them to carry out their construction, research, missile testing and other activities. Commonly, these permits are good for up to five years; however, the U.S. Navy routinely asks for, and receives, seven-year permits.

To receive an exemption, a private entity or government agency must request an authorization to “take” certain marine mammals either by Level A or Level B harassment. The MMPA defines “take” as “to harass, hunt, capture, or kill” a marine mammal or the attempt to do so. “Harassment” is defined as “any act of pursuit, torment, or annoyance” that either has the potential to injure a marine mammal (Level A) or to disturb the animal through disruption of behavioral patterns such as migration, breathing, nursing, feeding or shelter (Level B).

When faced with a request for “taking” marine mammals incidental to sonar or military readiness activities, the Navy frequently asks for authorization of both Level A and B harassment. In 2017, the Navy was granted an exemption for activities with the potential for Level A harassment affecting 14,000 whales and dolphins due to sonar and military readiness activities. This testing is scheduled to continue through 2024, when the Navy is likely to request—and receive—another exemption from the MMPA.

Testing Continues Despite Flaws in Approval Data

Sonar testing is conducted in more than half of the world’s oceans and has been proven to harm whales and dolphins who rely on underwater sound for navigating, catching prey and communicating. The sound waves from sonar testing can travel for hundreds of miles underwater and retain an intensity of 140 decibels as far as 300 miles from their source. Sonar testing can cause intense and permanent hearing damage and hearing loss, lung injuries, starvation, behavioral disturbance and isolation as mammals become separated from their pods and are unable to find their families due to their hearing loss.

In addition to ongoing sonar testing, the Navy and Air Force frequently request authorization for construction projects and tests of missiles and explosives—both in the air and underwater.  These requests openly acknowledge and estimate that hundreds of whales, dolphins and seals could be seriously injured each year as a result of the activities.

NAVS reviewed 20 proposals from 2017 to 2019 requesting “takes” of marine mammals that qualified as Level A harassment. Government agencies were responsible for 15 of those requests. They were given permits to carry out the specified activities for the customary period of 5-7 years, despite deficiencies in their requests.

What kind of deficiencies? When applying for an exemption, the applicant must provide specific details about the activity and how it will affect marine mammals in the specified area. An application requires 14 specific pieces of information, requiring the applicant to provide detailed data regarding all species and stocks of animals in the area in which they propose to conduct their activities. Furthermore, the NOAA may (in theory, at least) only authorize takes of a “small number” of marine mammals each year. This determination is made by comparing the number of takes of individuals of a species against their population or abundance. Yet the statistics provided by applicants, particularly military agencies, are based on old and insufficient data that are not representative of current species’ abundance or population density. What may have been a “small number” many years ago could now represent a substantial percentage of the species.

Take Action to Save Marine Mammals

Requests for exemptions under the MMPA do not go unchallenged. All federal agency actions are subject to review by the public, and this is no exception. In the case of granting sweeping exemptions to harming marine mammals, numerous animal advocacy groups, including NAVS, submit public comments, objecting to the government’s reliance on inaccurate statistics regarding potential marine mammal deaths and injuries.

Public comments opposing these exemptions cite:

  • Inconsistencies in requests, including estimates on the number and species of animals that will be taken;
  • Inconsistencies in requests on the number and species present in a proposed testing area;
  • Lack of information on the effect of disturbances on marine life;
  • Failure of the agency to collect meaningful data despite its ongoing activities in the affected region; and
  • Routine approval of all applications by the military, despite the number of marine mammals affected.

The future of marine mammal populations is not without hope. In 2015, animal advocates filed a lawsuit against the NOAA for violating requirements of the MMPA when agreeing to the U.S. Navy’s plans for harassing and injuring mammals. In response to the lawsuit, the Navy acknowledged that it did not have to train in every square inch of the ocean, and it could take reasonable steps to reduce the deadly consequences of its research activity by limiting its use of sonar in biologically significant areas. Whether they apply this new approach will be clearer when the Navy re-applies for its next five- to seven-year permit.

This story originally appeared in the Summer 2020 issue of Animal Action.