Conservation groups challenge feds on naval training

Lawsuit highlights potential impacts to marine mammals from sonar and underwater explosives

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An orca and calf. Photo courtesy NOAA.

By Summit Voice

FRISCO — Conservation advocates say federal authorization of a five-year U.S. Navy plan for testing and training activities off Hawai‘i and Southern California doesn’t do nearly enough to protect marine mammals from the impacts of sonar noise and underwater explosions.

The plan acknowledges that the training could cause up 9.6 million instances of harm to whales and dolphins and other marine mammals. The use of active sonar and explosive are known to cause permanent injuries and deaths to marine mammals.

According to the lawsuit filed this week Hawai‘i federal court, the plan violates federal environmental laws. The National Marine Fisheries Service didn’t evaluate alternative plans that would have required the Navy to avoid biologically important areas, the conservation groups said in a press release.

Ocean mammals depend on hearing for navigation, feeding, and reproduction. Scientists have linked military sonar and live-fire activities to mass whale beaching, exploded eardrums, and even death. In 2004, during war games near Hawai‘i, the Navy’s sonar was implicated in a mass stranding of up to 200 melon-headed whales in Hanalei Bay, Kaua‘i.

The Navy and Fisheries Service estimate that, over the plan’s five-year period, training and testing activities will result in thousands of animals suffering permanent hearing loss, lung injuries or death.  Millions of animals will be exposed to temporary injuries and disturbances, with many subjected to multiple harmful exposures.

“Live-fire and ocean sonar training harms critically endangered marine mammals like Hawai‘i’s insular false killer whales, which number only about 150 individuals and rely heavily on their acute sense of hearing to survive,” said David Henkin of Earthjustice. “When federally protected species are on the line, the law requires the Fisheries Service to take a hard look at ways to avoid harming them and to involve the public in examining alternative courses of action.”

“Some of the marine mammals threatened by Navy activities are already on the brink of extinction, such as the Hawaiian monk seal, our state mammal and one of the world’s most endangered species,” said Conservation Council for Hawai‘i’s Marjorie Ziegler.

“The Fisheries Service has determined that Hawaiian monk seals in the main Hawaiian Islands are essential to the species’ survival.  Under the plan it just approved, however, each one of these seals will be harmed by sonar an average of 10 times a year,” Ziegler said. “If we can save even a few seals through better planning, we must.  Much of this harm can be avoided and mitigated, if only the Fisheries Service would require it.”

“The whales and dolphins who wind up in the middle of the war games don’t stand a chance against the Navy. This proposal increases the predicted harm to marine mammals by more than 10 times.  The Fisheries Service needs to do better to protect our oceans by preventing harm to the animals that call those oceans home,” said Miyoko Sakashita, Oceans Director at the Center for Biological Diversity.

“The lawsuit is not asking to stop the Navy from training,” explained Susan Millward, Executive Director of Animal Welfare Institute. “Rather, we are asking our government to take the required ‘hard look’ before inflicting this much harm on vulnerable marine mammals populations and to consider alternatives that would allow the Navy to achieve its goals with less damage. For taxpayer-funded activities at this scale, citizen oversight often helps create a better plan.”

“The science is clear:  sonar and live-fire training in the ocean harms marine mammals,” said Dr. Marsha Green, Ocean Mammal Institute’s president. “There are safer ways to conduct Navy exercises that include time and place restrictions to avoid areas known to be vital for marine mammals’ feeding, breeding and resting. With a little advanced planning and precaution, the Navy can conduct training and protect marine species in the Pacific Ocean.”

Earthjustice represents Conservation Council for Hawai‘i, the Animal Welfare Institute, Center for Biological Diversity and Ocean Mammal Institute in this matter.

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