December 12, 2006

Eglin Poised to Test Missiles, Bombs in Gulf

By Mladen Rudman, Northwest Florida Daily News, Fort Walton Beach

Dec. 12--EGLN AFB -- The federal government could soon find out if testing sophisticated weapons in the Gulf of Mexico can coexist with protecting marine mammals. The National Marine Fisheries Service is on the verge of clearing the way for the Air Armament Center to continue evaluating the Air Force's two newest munitions in the gulf. The armament center has requested authorization to fire Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missiles and drop Small Diameter Bombs, though it might result in small "incidental takes" of marine mammals. Weapons testing in the Eglin Air Force Base Gulf Test and Training Range can produce no more than one dead dolphin or whale annually each of the next five years, according to the NMFS. No more than two Atlantic bottlenose dolphins, Atlantic spotted dolphins, dwarf sperm whales or pygmy sperm whales can be victims of serious injury, such as ruptured eardrums yearly, while it's OK to annoy as many as 53 with noise produced by detonating warheads. One opponent has lined up against the armament center's request during a recent open-comment period. The Humane Society of the United States had a lengthy list of worries revolving mostly around the gulf dolphin population. Its marine issues field director, Sharon Young, said Eglin's weapons testing alone probably wouldn't cause trouble for dolphins. But, add a few live-warhead JASSM and SDB drops to scores of dolphin strandings and deaths in Florida during the past two years and pods might be further weakened, she said. "The stock has suffered a significant amount of mortality," Young continued. "My concern is that (Eglin's) monitoring and mitigation plans need to be improved." She would like to see more marine mammal observers aboard safety vessels, as well as greater use of airborne spotters. Young also is concerned that patrolling a warhead detonation zone for only two days after a test isn't long enough to ensure no animals were killed or injured. Eglin has calculated no dolphins would be killed during the tests, six might be injured and 480 irritated by noise annually. The two dwarf whale species tend to stay in deeper water where Eglin doesn't plan to splash bombs and missiles. Bob Miller, one of the base's endangered species biologists, said there's no evidence past Eglin weapons testing has caused deaths of marine mammals. He added efforts to protect marine creatures during weapons tests extend to other species such as sea turtles. Observers aboard safety vessels and aircraft, if they're available, watch for marine mammals and sea turtles and creatures they eat. For example, jellyfish might draw sea turtles and a school of fish, dolphins. "If that happens, we can actually delay the shot until the animals get out of the area," Miller said. Delaying a test, which costs about $2 million, adds to the price tag. Mike Spaits, a spokesman for Eglin's Natural Resources Branch, said balancing national security needs with protecting animals and plants is a delicate operation. "We exist to support the mission," he continued. "However, we also have an obligation to ensure that we have as minimal environmental impact as is possible." Daily News Staff Writer Mladen Rudman can be reached at 863-1111, Ext. 443.


Copyright (c) 2006, Northwest Florida Daily News, Fort Walton Beach

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