Court orders U.S. Navy to cut sonar testing, explosives use in key marine mammal areas

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Marine mammals around California and Hawaii will get some relief from U.S. Navy training exercises. @bberwyn photo.

‘If a whale or dolphin can’t hear, it can’t survive …’

Staff Report

Whale and dolphins off the coast of California and Hawaii will get temporary protection from naval warfare training activities under a federal court settlement that restricts sonar training and the use of powerful explosives in some areas.

The settlement is in response to a lawsuit from a coalition of activist groups that has been sparring with the U.S. Navy over the issue for about 10 years. The court previously found that the Navy’s activities illegally harm more than 60 separate populations of whales, dolphins, seals, and sea lions.

Under the agreement, the Navy agrees to consider areas of vital importance to marine mammals, such as reproductive areas, feeding areas, migratory corridors, and areas in which small, resident populations are concentrated.

“We can protect our fleet and safeguard our whales,” said Rhea Suh, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, whose lawyers challenged the Navy’s activities in Southern California and Hawai‘i on behalf of NRDC, Cetacean Society International, Animal Legal Defense Fund, Pacific Environment and Resources Center, and Michael Stocker. “This settlement shows the way to do both, ensuring the security of U.S. Navy operations while reducing the mortal hazard to some of the most majestic creatures on Earth. Our Navy will be the better for this, and so will the oceans our sailors defend.”

The conservation groups have been trying for years to get the Navy to comply with environmental laws by taking affirmative steps to lessen the impacts.

“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.”

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. Nonetheless, 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 will 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 Hawai‘i, for which the islands are literally an oasis, their only home.

Specifically, the court settlement addressed waters off Southern California, which includes important foraging areas for vulnerable species such as endangered blue and fin whales, and contains important habitat for small populations of beaked whales, a family of species that is considered acutely sensitive to naval active sonar, with documented injury and mortality.

“Numerous beaked whale strandings and deaths have been linked to naval uses of high-intensity sonar,” said Bill Rossiter, executive director for Advocacy, Science & Grants of Cetacean Society International. “Now, beaked whale populations in Southern California that have been suffering from the Navy’s use of sonar will be able to find areas of refuge where sonar will be off-limits.”

Key terms of the settlement applicable to Southern California include:

  • The Navy is prohibited from using mid-frequency active sonar for training and testing activities in important habitat for beaked whales between Santa Catalina Island and San Nicolas Island.
  • The Navy is prohibited from using mid-frequency active sonar for training and testing activities in important habitat for blue whales feeding near San Diego.
  • Navy surface vessels must use “extreme caution” and travel at a safe speed to minimize the risk of ship strikes in blue whale feeding habitat and migratory corridors for blue, fin and, gray whales.

The waters around Hawaii are critical for vulnerable populations of toothed whales, including spinner dolphins, melon-headed whales, and endangered false killer whales.

“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. “This settlement helps protect marine habitat the Fisheries Service just last month identified as essential to the seal’s survival.”

Key terms of the settlement applicable to Hawai‘i include:

  • The Navy is prohibited from using mid-frequency active sonar and explosives for training and testing activities on the eastern side of the Island of Hawai‘i and north of Moloka‘i and Maui, protecting Hawaiian monk seals and numerous small resident populations of toothed whales including the endangered insular population of false killer whales and Cuvier’s beaked whales.
  • The Navy is prohibited from exceeding a set number of major training exercises in the channel between Maui and Hawai‘i Island and on the western side of Hawai‘i Island, limiting the number of times local populations will be subjected to the massive use of sonar and explosives associated with major training exercises.
  • Navy surface vessels must use “extreme caution” and travel at a safe speed to minimize the risk of ship strikes in humpback whale habitat.

At issue was a U.S. Navy five-year plan for training and testing, which was found illegal last March when the U.S. District Court for Hawaii ruled that the U.S. Navy and the National Marine Fisheries Service violated the law when they failed to meet multiple requirements of the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the National Environmental Policy Act when authorizing the Navy’s plan.

Ocean noise is one of the biggest threats worldwide to the health and well-being of marine mammals, which rely on sound to ‘see’ their world. Navy sonar activities, shipping noise, and seismic exploration by oil and gas companies have made our oceans noisier in recent decades, resulting in widespread disruption to feeding, communication, mating, and more. Southern California and Hawai‘i represent two of the Navy’s most active ranges for mid-frequency sonar and explosives use.

Conservation Council for Hawai‘i, et al. v. National Marine Fisheries Service, et al. was brought by Earthjustice in December 2013 in the District of Hawai‘i, representing Conservation Council for Hawai‘i, the Animal Welfare Institute, the Center for Biological Diversity, and the Ocean Mammal Institute.

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