With four humpback whales washing up on Hampton Roads beaches, including two on the Eastern Shore, the question arises of just who is watching out for these mammals? It turns out the U.S. Navy is. This year the Navy’s Marine Species Monitoring Program has been working overtime. While the Navy is required to monitor any area if they are going to conduct training at sea, their program in the Hampton Roads area goes well beyond the generally lukewarm requirements. The Navy spends close to $4 million dollars each year watching for migratory species such as right and humpback whales.
The Navy is responsible for compliance with a suite of Federal environmental laws and regulations that apply to marine mammals and other marine protected species, including the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA). According to Joel Bell, a senior Navy Living Marine Resource specialist, “The Navy takes this very seriously.”
The Integrated Comprehensive Monitoring Program (ICMP) was created to bring the individual range complex monitoring plans under a common umbrella and provides an overarching framework for the Navy’s marine species monitoring program. Additionally, the Navy has developed a Strategic Planning Process for Marine Species Monitoring to establish the guidelines and processes necessary to develop, evaluate, and fund individual projects based on objective scientific study questions. The Office of Naval Research (ONR) Marine Mammals and Biology (MMB) program supports basic and applied research and technology development related to understanding the effects of sound on marine mammals, including physiological, behavioral, ecological effects and population-level effects.
The waters around Hampton Roads are highly trafficked, so whales that spend four or five months feeding at the mouth of the bay are at a higher risk of impact with vessels that are capable of high rates of speed. So far, 110 whales have been cataloged in the area this year.
According to Dan Englehaupt of HDR Engineering which has been contracted to help the Navy, “About 10 percent of them show signs of impact with ships.That’s pretty high compared to other areas.” Engelhaupt notes that the whales like to hang out in the shipping channel because of the deeper water and the highly concentrated food source (menhaden) which is located there.
Navy ships have lookouts and more maneuverability when it comes to avoiding whales. But the challenge is greater for larger civilian container ships. Pleasure boaters also pose a risk if they sail too close to the mammals.
According to Englehaupt, “All marine mammals are protected by law and it’s illegal to harass them. Some of these whales are super friendly and curious. We’ve seen pleasure boaters flying around trying to get as close to the whales as possible. That needs to stop.”
The Navy is hoping solutions that would protect the whales and still allow ships to pass through the channel can be found before next season. They say that while four whales were found dead, most likely from propeller strikes, more could have died and washed out to sea.
Data from the Associated Press, Lee Tolliver (Virginia Pilot) and the Navy ICMP was used in this article.