Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Whales Win in Hawaii

After years of persistent attempts to force the US Navy to respect laws protecting whales and other marine mammals from potentially lethal sonar, the military signed an important settlement agreement that was ratified in US District Court for Hawaii. Despite years of research showing that sonar training exercising conducted near whales could lead to damaging their sensitive natural sonar, beaching and even in extreme cases death from internal hemorrhaging the Navy insisted on unrestricted use of high intensity sonar as necessary to protect the usual claim of national security. By 2000 a government sponsored investigation into the beaching of four different species after sonar exercising in the Bahamas established a direct link between sonar use and whale deaths or injury. After this finding the Navy fought environmentalists seeking protection from indiscriminate sonar use in court for years.

The science and the well-founded objections of whale advocates did not stop the National Marine Fisheries Service, the federal agency tasked with protecting marine mammals and their habitats, from rubber-stamp approval of another Navy training exercise in the waters around Hawaii and Southern California in December 2013. The government estimated that the high frequency sound would impact marine mammals as many as 10 million times over the course of five years. The agency did nothing to safeguard important breeding habitat for vulnerable species. NRDC and other conservation organizations decided they needed to sue the Navy once again to stop the irresponsible use of sonar near sensitive marine mammals.

Fortunately the US District Court agreed with environmentalists. The federal judge found the US Navy's training plan violated multiple environmental laws and should never been authorized by the Fisheries Service. The Navy finally admitted defeat. For the first time, the Navy agreed to place certain ocean areas off limits to sonar testing that are important marine mammal habitats. This is a reversal of its previous position to unlimited ocean operations that made negotiation impossible. The settlement reached with the Navy protects blue whale feeding grounds off San Diego; waters around the California Channel Islands that are home to beaked whales; seas around Maui and the Big Island that are habitat for numerous small whales and dolphin populations as well as breeding grounds for the Humpback whale. The agreement only covers the ocean off Southern California and Hawaii and is limited in time to the end of 2018. Marine mammals in the Atlantic will remain vulnerable to the damaging effects of sonar and underwater detonations. The agreement is historic and it points the way forward to protecting all of Earth's marine mammals from needless death and injury.