Charles T. Jordan
A settlement has been reached that will provide whales and dolphins some peace and quiet in the waters around Hawaii and Southern California. The US Navy, on September 14, agreed to curb its use of sonar in these waters in order to prevent harming whales, dolphins, and other marine mammals.
Studies have sh own that whales and dolphins use their ears to navigate and survive in their habitat. However, this has gotten more difficult due to the immense quantities of noise in our waters. One particularly devastating source of noise is sonar. Vessels use sonar to detect dangers in the water to prevent collision. Sonar systems send out a high pitched and far ranging sound waves which have been shown to be harmful to marine mammals. The Navy, in its own five year Pacific weapons testing and training plan, estimated that marine mammals would be effected nearly 9.6 million times during high-intensity sonar exercises and weapons detonations. Injuries to the animals include ruptured eardrums and temporary hearing loss which in turn affects the animal’s normal behavior patterns; resulting in stranding, habitat avoidance and abandonment, and even death.
For many years a number of environmental groups (including the NRDC, Earthjustice, and Greenpeace) have been fighting the Navy and National Marine Fisheries Service (NFMS) in order to protect marine mammals from sonar interferences. Most recently in Conservation Council for Hawaii v. National Marine Fisheries Service, the plaintiffs sued NFMS to enforce the Navy’s five year training and testing plan in Hawaii and Southern California. On September 14 a settlement was reached, in which the Navy agreed to limit the use of sonar in the waters. These limits include; maintaining safe distances from mammals, limited number of sonar and weapon training and testing within certain areas near southern California (map 1), and prohibiting sonar and weapon training and testing in areas near Hawaii (map 2).
While this settlement represents a significant win for these marine mammals, and will certain do a lot to insure their survival, there is still a question going forward. On October 1, the Navy published its Environmental Impact Statement and proposed plan for their operations in the Northwest training and testing areas (off the coast of Washington state). The Navy received more than 1000 public comments, but the final EIS has not changed significantly from previous versions. This plan is currently awaiting NFMS approval, but it is likely that challenges similar to those seen in Hawaii and Southern California will follow. The settlement in Hawaii may provide some support for these challenges.