After a 10-year fight, the U.S. Navy has agreed not to test its mid-frequency sonar technology by indiscriminately setting off explosives that deafen whales and dolphins and cause myriad problems for other marine mammals in waters off Southern California and Hawaii.
“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.”
The Navy faced multiple lawsuits as it sought to protect its unchallenged authority to do anything, anywhere at sea without regard for ecological consequences. A ruling (pdf) by U.S. District Judge Susan Oki Mollway in Honolulu in March made it clear she disagreed with the government’s assertion that the training inflicted a “negligible impact” on marine mammals.
The judge could barely contain her sarcasm after perusing reams of legal submissions for any explanation of how the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) reached its dubious decision to allow the Navy testing. She wrote: “This court feels like the sailor in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ who, trapped for days on a ship becalmed in the middle of the ocean, laments, ‘Water, water, every where, Nor any drop to drink.’ ”
The NMFS claimed it was possible 155 whales and dolphins might be inadvertent killed over five years and 2,000 seriously injured from explosives. Environmentalists presented a more comprehensive assessment: Earthjustice calculated:
“Millions of others could be left with temporary injuries and significant disruptions to feeding, breeding, communicating, resting and other essential behaviors. In all, the Navy’s plan would cause an estimated 9.6 million instances of harm to marine mammals.”
In addition to setting off explosives underwater, the Navy tests mid-frequency sonar. Studies indicate dolphins and whales have “greater susceptibility” to it than once thought. Thirty-nine marine mammal species, eight of them endangered, have been identified in the proposed Navy testing area.
In California waters, the Navy won’t test the sonar between Santa Catalina Island and San Nicolas Island, and will steer clear of a blue whale habitat near San Diego, environmental groups familiar with the settlement details told the Los Angeles Times. The eastern side of Hawaii's Big Island and north of Molokai and Maui will also be off-limits, to protect whales and monk seals.
Surface ships will also be required to be real careful when plowing through those waters. The agreement expires in 2018.