Environmental groups sued the Navy on Thursday to halt plans for an offshore training range that they fear would threaten endangered right whales, which migrate to nearby waters off Georgia and Florida each winter.
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Savannah, says the Navy approved construction of the $100 million range in July without completing studies to determine whether military ships, submarines and aircraft training 75 miles offshore would pose significant harm to the whales.
Researchers estimate only 300 to 350 right whales remain. Experts say each whale killed by ship strikes or from entanglement in fishing lines and other underwater gear amounts to a large step toward extinction.
The 500 square nautical miles of Atlantic waters chosen for the Undersea Warfare Training Center are a short trip from its Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay in south Georgia and Naval Station Mayport in north Florida. However, the range would lie just outside the shallow waters where right whales give birth and nurse their calves each year from mid-November to mid-April.
The Southern Environmental Law Center, which filed the lawsuit on behalf of 12 conservation groups, says whales would be exposed to lethal collisions with ships, entanglement with cables from military buoys and possible harm from mid-frequency active sonar used by Navy warships and aircraft.
"We're introducing a bunch of threats into the most sensitive area for one of the world's most endangered whales," said Catherine Wannamaker, an attorney for the Atlanta-based center.
Lt. Laura Stegherr, a Navy spokeswoman at the Pentagon, declined immediate comment on the lawsuit, saying the Navy had not yet reviewed it.
The Navy has said the range's effect on whales would be negligible. The Navy plans to build an underwater network of 300 sensors connected to shore by fiber optic cables buried at depths of 120 to 1,200 feet.
The Navy said it was confident construction wouldn't harm whales because work would be suspended during the five-month calving season.
But the Navy also said it hasn't finished studies on how whales and other marine species might be affected by training exercises. Those studies would be completed by 2014, the earliest the range would open.
The U.S. Supreme Court recently weighed in on the issue of military training vs. protecting whales — and sided with the Navy.
In November 2008, the high court threw out restrictions on sonar use that lower courts had imposed on the Navy during training exercises off the coast of southern California, saying the need for a well-trained military trumped possible harm to an unknown number of marine mammals.
Some environmentalists argue that sonar can disrupt whale feeding patterns, and in extreme cases can kill whales by causing them to beach themselves. However, scientists don't fully understand how sonar affects whales.
The Georgia lawsuit differs from the California case because there are other threats aside from sonar and because the right whale population is extremely fragile, Wannamaker said.