East Hawaii News

Navy Settles in Sonar Dispute

September 14, 2015, 4:26 PM HST
* Updated September 14, 4:27 PM
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A settlement order was entered in federal court Monday in two cases challenging the United States Navy’s training and testing activities off the coasts of Hawai’i and Southern California. The settlement follows the court’s earlier finding that the Navy’s activities illegally harm more than 60 separate populations of whales, dolphins, seals, and sea lions and will now secure long-sought protections for whales, dolphins, and other marine mammals by limiting Navy activities in vital habitat.

In the settlement, the Navy agreed to put important habitat off-limits to dangerous mid-frequency sonar training and testing, in addition to use of powerful explosives. The settlement aimed to take into account areas of particular importance to marine mammals, including 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.”

Conservation organizations who brought the lawsuits have been working against the Navy and the National Marine Fisheries Service for over a decade. The conservation groups say that scientific studies have documented the connection between high-intensity mid-frequency sounds, including Navy sonar, and that serious impacts to marine mammals range from stranding and deaths to cessation of feeding and habitat avoidance and abandonment.

“If a whale or dolphin can’t hear, it can’t survive,” said David Henkin, an attorney for 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.”

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The settlement will expire late in 2018 and will protect habitat from the most vulnerable marine mammal populations, including blue whale that are endangered off the coast of Southern California; and small, resident whale and dolphin populations off Hawai’i.

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“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.”

“This agreement will enhance the welfare of dozens of species that call the Pacific Ocean home by extending vital protections to places they need to rest, feed, reproduce and care for their young,” said Susan Millward, executive director at the Animal Welfare Institute.

Many of the populations of vulnerable toothed whales, such as spinner dolphins, melon-headed whales, and endangered false killer whales call the Big Island and Maui County home.

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“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.”

Under the settlement, the Navy will be prohibited from the following:

  • The Navy is prohibited from using mid-frequency active sonar and explosives for training and testing activities on the eastern side of the Big Island 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.

“This is a huge victory for critically endangered species like Hawai‘i’s insular 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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