Exercise Joint Warrior 132 ready to go – as are marine environmentalists

HMS Somerset in Loch Fyne 5 October

Above is the Type 23 frigate, HMS Somerset, seen today, 5th October, in Loch Fyne in advance of Operation Joint Warrior 132, which begins on Monday 7th October.

Her sister ship, HMS Northumberland is in the Clyde, as is minehunter HMS Blyth, the patrol boat Severn, the French frigate La Motte Picquet and the Norwegian submarine, KNM Utvaer, is at Faslane.

A modest collection of other ships, mainly from the Royal Navy and noted below, will also take part in the exercise.

The second of the two annual Joint Warrior multinational armed forces’ training exercises, JW 132 will then see its maritime element run until 17th October.

Joint Warrior is a major April and October event taking place in the Scottish Exercise Areas, planned and co-ordinated by Northwood staff and channelled through Faslane which acts as HQ throughout the exercise.

Much of the activity occurs well offshore, however, local marine users may encounter some ‘stop and challenge’ elements of the exercise.

The exercise involves land forces, warships, submarines and aircraft – with the maritime element – from 7th to 17th October – centred on the offshore and coastal waters to the north east, north and north west of Scotland.

Running for two weeks, this latest exercise features participation by 16 separate naval units, over 40 fixed wing aircraft and a number of UK and allied land forces.

The maritime contingent will involve ships from France, Denmark and Norway with Commander Danish Task Group leading the operations on board HDMS Absalon.

Royal Navy ships taking part are the Type 23 frigate’s, HMS Somerset, HMS Northumberland, HMS Sutherland, HMS Monmouth, HMS Portland; the mine counter measures units, HMS Cattistock and HMS Brocklesby; and the Sandown class minehunters, HMS Bangor and HMS Blyth. Other navy units present will include a Trafalgar class submarine and patrol boats.

 The counter exercise

The major concerns over these twice yearly exercises centre on marine pollution and threats to marine species from sonar devices.

Garvie Island off Cape Wrath is routinely subject to aerial bombardment in these twice yearly exercises, with the surrounding sea bed repeatedly receiving the debris, including fragmented ordnance and unexploded ordnance.

Submarines and surface units are routinely deployed to sea areas off the Outer Isles in ‘cat and mouse’ surveilllance, detection and evasion exercises – involving a variety of sonar devices.

It has also long been suspected that sonar devices interfere, potentially fatally, with the navigation systems of cetaceans – the marine mammals, whales, dolphins and porpoises.

Following this year’s April Joint Warrior 131, field work off the west coast of Scotland in May recorded ‘unusual and worrying behaviour’ in these species.

Because of this, the Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust (HWDT) and the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (WDCS) are again joining forces to monitor the effects of JW 132 on important cetacean habitats in the Hebrides.

The ongoing environmental concerns both these organisations have about the negative effects of naval activities on our whales and dolphins is based on evidence from Scotland and elsewhere.

HWDT’s vessel, Silurian now has volunteers onboard to assist in collecting visual and acoustic data; while WDCS is coordinating land based watches throughout the area.

On 12th may this year, during one of HWDT’s regular boat surveys for whales and dolphins off the west coast of Scotland using observers and hydrophones, the team observed unusual behaviour from two minke whales within an hour. At the same time military sonar was heard on the hydrophone – sometimes so loudly that the monitors’ headphones could not be kept on.

The whales were noted travelling in the same direction at high speed, regularly leaping clear of the water. This behaviour, known as ‘porpoising’, is more typical of dolphins and is rarely seen in undisturbed whales.

Nienke van Geel, HWDT’s Biodiversity Officer says: ‘Seeing minke whales porpoising many times successively is very unusual. Both whales moved very fast, too fast for us to keep up with them to try to take identification pictures. We estimated they were traveling at least at 15 knots. Our research has already shown a decline in minke whale sightings in the last few years, so we’re worried about anything that might adversely affect the population.’

Military sonar used during Joint Warrior exercises emits intense, loud noises that can disturb and harm whales and dolphins, which rely on their sensitive hearing to navigate, find food and communicate.

Naval sonar, more commonly linked to mass strandings events of deep diving whales, has also been associated with minke whale strandings in the Bahamas and in North Carolina. On the west coast of US, close to Seattle, similar rapid fleeing behaviour has been observed from killer whales and dolphins in response to sonar.

HWDT and WDCS have renewed their call for a full and transparent Environmental Impact Assessment to be conducted by the Ministry of Defence.

In the meantime, both organisations will continue to monitor and record observations made through-out the exercise.

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