July 30, 2008

Navy’s Underwater Blasts Not Harming Protected Fish, Wildlife Agency Says

SEATTLE _ The U.S. Navy can keep setting off underwater explosions in Puget Sound without posing a serious threat to protected salmon, steelhead and orcas, a federal wildlife agency has concluded.

The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) determined that dozens of naval exercises involving explosive charges up to 20 pounds could kill thousands of salmon. But the agency also said it wouldn't make a significant dent in the overall fish populations and the Navy had taken steps to minimize the damage.

The ruling helps clear the way for the Navy to continue training divers to destroy explosive mines or explosives attached to the sides of ships.

The training is being closely watched by some environmental groups, who fear the underwater blasts could hurt salmon, orcas and seabirds protected by the Endangered Species Act.

The local Wild Fish Conservancy and the Washington, D.C.-based Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) filed suit Monday in U.S. District Court in Seattle, claiming the Navy, NMFS and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service broke the law by letting explosions continue while failing to rule whether they threatened endangered species.

On Tuesday, a PEER attorney, Adam Draper, said he didn't realize the marine-fisheries service had issued its decision at the end of June. The environmental groups would need to review the decision before deciding whether to drop that part of the lawsuit, he said.

But the federal Fish and Wildlife Service has yet to rule whether the explosions pose a serious risk to bull trout or the marbled murrelet, a tiny West Coast seabird that dives underwater to catch fish. That decision is in the works, said wildlife-service spokesman Doug Zimmer.

The Navy did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday.

NMFS examined Navy training involving as many as 61 detonations per year in three places: Crescent Harbor, off the east side of Whidbey Island; Port Townsend Bay; and the northern part of Hood Canal. The most serious damage could come in Crescent Harbor, where as many as 3,000 juvenile chinook and 23 adult chinook could be killed each year.

But that would be more than offset by a Navy project to restore a wetland nearby along the shore, which could produce as many as 15,000 young chinook and 250 adults returning to the nearby Skagit River.

The fisheries service said a Navy policy to check the area for animals such as orcas before setting off explosions would help minimize risks.

Tom Sibley, of the fisheries service, said the damage is probably far less than the report suggests, because the Navy has scaled back its exercises.


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