A U.S. Navy has agreed to reduce explosive training exercises and sonar use in the waters off southern California and Hawaii. This was the result of a settlement pronounced by a federal judge in Honolulu, after two lawsuits filed by environmental groups such as Earthjustice and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).
It was a long-awaited victory for the nonprofit organizations which had been striving for more than 2 decades to convince the Navy to introduce measures for the protection of ocean wildlife. The National Marine Fisheries Service, which regulates the naval forces’ activity, had been reluctant to limit training or conduct it in a more sustainable, environmental-friendly manner.
Now however, it accepted the need to stop entirely or at least diminish the use of mid-range sonars and explosives in coastal waters. Those areas represent the habitat for species such as blue whales, false killer whales, Cuvier’s beaked whales and Hawaiian monk seals. Some of these marine mammals are already critically endangered as a result of man-made activities.
The Navy’s decision to finally reach a compromise with conservationists may be linked to the fact that it feared more penalties from the federal court. Last spring, U.S. District Judge Susan Oki Mollway concluded that the naval forces had shown resistance to change, and a total disregard for environmental matters.
The ruling also called for a revision of internal practices, in order to prevent extensive damage on the ecosystem due to military procedures. Therefore, according to a Navy spokesperson, the settlement was accepted because otherwise the Court might have stopped “critically important testing and training” required for “missions in support of our national security”.
Even if the decision was taken while having in mind the naval task force’s own objectives, marine wildlife will still benefit from these measures. Based on Navy estimations, 155 whales and dolphins off Hawaii and Southern California have died as a result of military training, and 2,000 others risk being seriously injured.
For instance, beaked whales, which dive deeper than any other mammal, at depths of almost 3 km, are particularly sensitive to mid-frequency sonars. Acoustic disturbances ranging from 1 kHz to 10 kHz have been associated with mass strandings of these mammals, because the sounds induce panic and cause the whales to become disoriented.
Worldwide, 50 marine mammal strandings connected with naval maneuvers have been reported between 1996 and 2006.
The sonars also disrupt basic functions such as mating, communication and feeding, and may cause trauma such as bleeding from the eyes and the ears. According to Earthjustice attorney David Henkin, from a close distance these pertubations can even result in deafness or death.
Given the serious danger that sonars pose to the marine mammals’ well-being, the Natural Resources Defense Council has announced that it would persist in its legal battle against the Navy, to regulate its activity even further, in the Gulf of Alaska, off northern Florida and the Pacific Northwest.
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