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Dolphins die after underwater Navy training exercise near San Diego

March 25, 2011 |  4:32 pm

Three dolphins died earlier this month during a Navy training exercise using underwater explosives off the San Diego coast, authorities said Friday.

Scientists have yet to officially determine what caused the deaths at the Silver Strand Training Complex near Coronado, but examinations of the animals showed injuries consistent with blast trauma.

The unit conducting the underwater training exercises on March 4 had scanned the area and spotted no marine mammals before starting a countdown to detonate the explosives about 10:45 a.m., said Cmdr. Greg Hicks, spokesman for the U.S. Navy’s Third Fleet.

“They saw the dolphins before the explosives went off, but it came so late it would have put humans at risk to stop the process,” he said.

“After the detonation, despite all required protective actions taken to avoid marine mammal impacts, three dolphins were found dead in the area.”

After the explosion, government biologists retrieved the carcasses and took them to a veterinary lab at Sea World to undergo necropsies.

Genetic testing showed the animals were Long-Beaked Common Dolphins, said Sarah Wilkin, a marine mammal biologist for the National Marine Fisheries Service, which is responsible for investigating sick, injured and dead marine mammals.

Samples from the dolphin carcasses are being analyzed to rule out other factors that could have contributed to the deaths, such as disease or poisoning.

Wilkin said the deaths should not have a significant impact on the species’ population.

There are an estimated 15,000 Long-Beaked Common Dolphins along the California coast. While protected under the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act, the species is not considered threatened or endangered.

Conservationists have wrangled with the U.S. Navy in the past about about military operations, but experts said they knew of no previous incidents in the region of dolphin fatalities involving explosives.

Most of the controversy over the impacts of military training on marine life in recent years has centered on sonar. Environmentalists have argued the U.S. Navy’s sonar exercises can deafen and even kill whales and other marine life.

The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the military in 2008. The Navy has been working with the National Marine Fisheries Service on permits and protocols for exercises at the Silver Strand facility, Wilkin said.

Environmental groups said the dolphin deaths show the military needs to take further precautions to protect marine life from explosives.

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-- Tony Barboza

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