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News | April 3, 2018

Navy Environmental Law Practice - Marine Mammal Research

By Lt. Cmdr. Gavan Montague, Assistant Environmental Counsel, U.S. Fleet Forces Command

It's safe to say that the Navy is a unique client when it comes to environmental law. Many of the challenges are intuitive when you consider the Navy is a kinetic force designed to win wars, deter aggression, and maintain freedom of the seas. The Navy engages in unique activities in the ocean environment that are critical to national security.

What might come as a surprise, though, are the Navy's extensive efforts to accomplish its mission in an environmentally responsible manner. In addition to conducting extensive analyses of the environmental effects, and potential mitigations, for its activities, the Navy is a leader in funding and carrying out research to protect marine resources. As I found out last summer, Navy JAGs can get hands-on experience with those research efforts. On an early morning in August, I met up with a group of marine biologists and acousticians from NAVFAC Atlantic for a day of visual and acoustic monitoring of bottlenose dolphins off the Virginia Beach coast.

The event had been organized by Jackie Bort and Jaime Gormley, NAVFAC marine resources specialists, to study dolphins' reaction to underwater detonations conducted by a local EOD unit as part of an exercise. The EOD team's plan was to neutralize simulated underwater mines using explosive charges. The detonations would occur about 7 miles off the coast of Dam Neck Annex that morning. Our plan was to deploy four acoustic recorders approximately .5 nautical miles from the detonation locations to monitor for the presence and reaction of dolphins in the area before, during, and after the detonations. Once the buoys were in place, our job was to locate pods of dolphins in the area and monitor their behavior. Any behavior observed prior to the explosions would help establish a baseline of normal activity in that area, which could be compared to behavior or acoustic data obtained following the detonations. Of course, the best case scenario would allow for observation of the same group of dolphins before, during and after the detonations to determine what, if any, effects they might experience.  

A quick note on safety: the EOD team maintains a safety standoff zone around the explosive exercise, which was coordinated in advance with NAVFAC Atlantic and the boat captains. We would be in contact with EOD via radio for the entire evolution, and, other than our two research vessels and EOD boats, no other watercraft would be allowed in the safety standoff zone. In addition, EOD divers and boats would be on the lookout to ensure no dolphins were in the immediate area of the planned detonations. If any were observed, the detonation would be delayed until they departed the area, in accordance with mitigation measures required for this type of exercise. Conditions were just about ideal for the study. The water was a bit rough, which made spotting and maintaining contact with dolphin pods a challenge, but visibility was great and a breeze kept the temperature down. Almost immediately after deploying the acoustic recorders, our research vessel spotted and began tracking several pods of dolphins. As we tracked their locations and numbers, the marine biologists explained their behaviors-traveling, foraging, and socializing-all of which were logged to help establish baseline conditions before the detonations. Unfortunately, the planned detonation time was delayed slightly when an errant fisherman steered his boat into the danger zone. Once he was warned out of the area, the countdown resumed, but our dolphin pod had migrated out too far from the explosion to associate any reaction with the event. We headed back closer to the detonation site in hopes of finding another pod, but apparently we'd used up our luck for the day. While we weren't visually tracking any dolphins at the time of the explosions, a second research vessel did track a pod before, during and after the explosions. In addition, the acoustic recorders recorded significant dolphin vocalizations throughout the day.

This information will now be studied in the weeks and months to come to analyze behavior patterns and to inform the growing literature on marine mammal reactions to acoustic sources. The study was just one small part the Navy's extensive marine mammal research program, which helps scientists understand the effects of man-made sound on the marine environment and helps the Navy implement protective measures to reduce potential impacts on marine mammals. I learned a lot from my day of monitoring dolphins. First, there are few easy answers in science! The information collected validated the study methodology and will inform longer term research of the effects of underwater noise on marine mammals. In other words, because of the complexity of the science, we didn't get off the boat knowing exactly how dolphins reacted to the exercise, but we were a step closer. Second, even with a great plan, marine research is highly variable since it depends on the animals showing up at the right time to start the study. And third, getting out of the office for hands-on exposure to the Navy's research efforts is a great way for attorneys to better understand our clients and the issues they face.
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