Marine Mammals Get Reprieve as US Navy Finally Agrees to Back Off Sonar Testing in Key Areas

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Marine Mammals Get Reprieve as US Navy Finally Agrees to Back Off Sonar Testing in Key Areas

"If a whale or dolphin can’t hear, it can’t survive," says lawyer who helped forge settlement that will see underwater sonar and other military exercises curtailed in critical waters

A humpback whale leaps out of the water off Maui. To settle a lawsuit brought by environmental groups, the Navy agreed Monday to rule certain areas off-limits to training near Southern California and the Hawaiian islands. (Photo: Reed Saxon / AP)

Animal welfare groups and conservationists are declaring victory on behalf of marine mammals off the coast of both Hawaii and California after a federal judge on Monday signed a settlement in which the U.S. Navy agreed to limit its use of underwater sonar and explosives in particularly sensitive areas for scores of vulnerable species.

Environmentalists have been challenging the U.S. military's testing of mid-frequency sonar and other activities deemed harmful to whales, dolphins, and other species for many years, but the agreement signed Monday by U.S. District Judge Susan Oki Mollway in Honolulu only came after a ruling by the same judge earlier this year which said the U.S. Navy had other opportunities to perform such testing in places where its negative impact would not be so dire.

"If a whale or dolphin can’t hear, it can’t survive," said David Henkin, an attorney for the national legal organization Earthjustice, who brought the initial challenge to the Navy’s latest round of training and testing on behalf of Conservation Council for Hawai‘i, the Animal Welfare Institute, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Ocean Mammal Institute. "We challenged the Navy’s plan because it would have unnecessarily harmed whales, dolphins, and endangered marine mammals, with the Navy itself estimating that more than 2,000 animals would be killed or permanently injured. By agreeing to this settlement, the Navy acknowledges that it doesn’t need to train in every square inch of the ocean and that it can take reasonable steps to reduce the deadly toll of its activities."

As the Los Angeles Times reports:

The litigation centered on a disagreement about how many marine mammals might be harmed by the Navy’s training regimen. Mollway ruled that the Navy had vastly underestimated the threat.

According to the environmentalists, the settlement calls for a ban on mid-frequency sonar and explosives on the eastern side of the Big Island and north of Molokai and Maui, in an effort to protect whales and Hawaiian monk seals. Surface ships would be required to use “extreme caution” to avoid hitting humpback whales.

Off Southern California, the Navy is banned from using mid-frequency sonar between Santa Catalina Island and San Nicolas Island, also near blue whale habitat off San Diego, the environmental groups said. The same extreme caution would be required for ships in the feeding habitat and migratory corridors for blue, fin and gray whales.

The Navy asserted its training could kill 155 whales over five years. Environmentalists said the number of those killed or injured would be much higher.

"This settlement proves what we’ve been saying all along," said Marsha Green, president of Ocean Mammal Institute. "The Navy can meet its training and testing needs and, at the same time, provide significant protections to whales and dolphins by limiting the use of sonar and explosives in vital habitat."

Scientific studies have documented the connection between high-intensity mid-frequency sounds, including Navy sonar, and serious impacts to marine mammals ranging from strandings and deaths to cessation of feeding and habitat avoidance and abandonment. Despite those scientific warnings, until now the Navy has refused to set aside biologically important areas to minimize such harm to vulnerable marine mammal populations.

Until it expires in late 2018, the agreement is designed to protect habitat for the most vulnerable marine mammal populations, including endangered blue whales for which waters off Southern California are a globally important feeding area; and numerous small, resident whale and dolphin populations off Hawaii, for which the islands are an oasis—their only home.

"This is a huge victory for critically endangered species like the insular population of Hawaii’s false killer whale, which is down to only about 150 animals," said Miyoko Sakashita, oceans director at the Center for Biological Diversity.

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