Navy training toll was projected to be comparable to Japanese whaling
HONOLULU, Hawaii––Eighteen years of conflict over the impact of U.S. Navy sonar training exercises on whales, dolphins, seals, and sea lions is lessened, but not near an end, after U.S. District Court Judge Susan Oki Mollway on September 14, 2015 approved a settlement between the Navy and the co-plaintiffs in a 2013 lawsuit.
Under the settlement, the Navy accepts limits––and even some outright prohibitions––on the use of mid-range sonar and underwater explosives in sensitive areas off Hawaii and Southern California.
“Training can kill”
“In some cases, training exercises can kill,” wrote Jennifer Sinco Kelleher of Associated Press. “Four dolphins died in 2011 in San Diego when they got too close to an explosives training exercise.”
The Navy sought to keep the emphasis of the case and settlement on the use of explosives, rather than sonar, estimating that planned training exercises “could inadvertently kill 155 whales and dolphins off Hawaii and Southern California,” Kelleher explained, and “could cause more than 11,000 serious injuries [to marine mammals] off the East Coast and 2,000 off Hawaii and Southern California.
The anticipated death and injury toll would have been comparable to the effects of Japanese coastal and “research” whaling.
Major issue is sonar
The issue of most concern to the plaintiff organizations, however, has been the use of sonar.
“Under the agreement,” Kelleher summarized “the Navy cannot use sonar in Southern California habitat for beaked whales between Santa Catalina Island and San Nicolas Island. Sonar also is not allowed in blue whale feeding areas near San Diego. In Hawaii, the deal prohibits sonar and explosives training on the eastern side of the Big Island and north of Molokai and Maui.”
The restrictions in Hawaiian waters are expected to “protect Hawaiian monk seals and small populations of toothed whales, including the endangered false killer whale,” Kelleher said.
Added Bill Rossiter, executive director for advocacy, science and grants at Cetacean Society International, “Beaked whale populations in Southern California that have been suffering from the Navy’s use of sonar will be able to find areas of refuge where sonar will be off-limits.”
EarthJustice attorney David Henkin brought the 2013 case on behalf of a coalition also including Cetacean Society International, the Animal Legal Defense Fund, the Conservation Council for Hawaii, the Animal Welfare Institute, the Center for Biological Diversity, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Ocean Mammal Institute, the Pacific Environment & Resources Center, and individual plaintiff Michael Stocker of Ocean Conservation Research.
NRDC continues fighting sonar in other venues
“The Natural Resources Defense Council, which was also part of the legal battle, said it will continue fighting sonar use in the Navy’s other training areas, such as off the Pacific Northwest, in the Gulf of Alaska and off northern Florida,” Kelleher reported.
The Navy settled with the environmental and animal protection organizations after Judge Mollway ruled in March 2015 that the National Marine Fisheries Service violated a variety of environmental laws when it authorized the proposed war games that were in dispute.
Offered Mollway in her written opinion, “Searching the administrative record’s reams of pages for some explanation as to why the Navy’s activities were authorized by the National Marine Fisheries Service, 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 Mollway ruling, said U.S. Navy Lieutenant Commander Matt Knight, meant the Navy “faced the real possibility that the court would stop critically important training and testing.”
The settlement agreement allows Navy training exercises already underway to continue, with modification to protect marine mammals, through 2018.
Sonar harm to whales only recently discovered
Just 20 years ago acoustic trauma to marine mammals was believed to be rare, associated mostly with the shock waves from explosions and underwater volcanic eruptions occurring close to the victims. The importance of sonic frequency was barely recognized at all. And one of the most insidious threats to marine mammals, the increasing use of low-frequency active sonar, was not yet known.
Because low-frequency sound travels in seawater more effectively and for greater distances than the high-frequency sound used by traditional sonar, the U.S. Navy in the late 1980s began experimenting with low-frequency and mid-range active sonar to detect and track new ultra-quiet submarines at greater distances––hoping to find enemy submarines before they can get close enough to the U.S. to launch nuclear weapons.
This, then and now, is a U.S. defense priority, since nations including Iran and North Korea have been simultaneously developing nuclear weapons and submarine fleets.
Word about hazard leaked out
Details of U.S. Navy sonar studies impacting on marine mammals leaked to concerned civilians in bits and pieces.
Between August 1988 and July 1994, the U.S. Navy conducted 22 low-frequency sonar field exercises, Natural Resources Defense Council attorney Joel Reynolds disclosed in September 1996 via MARMAM, an electronic bulletin for marine mammalogists. The Navy said the experiments were conducted without known adverse impact on marine mammals.
But Reynolds was skeptical.
Freedom of Information Act requests confirmed by mid-1997 that several U.S. government agencies had already received warnings from their own senior scientists that low-frequency and mid-range active sonar might be a disaster for whales––as began to occur where tests were conducted.
Responding to the accumulating evidence, the National Marine Fisheries Service began requiring the U.S. Navy to seek incidental take permits for further tests.
Lawsuits & demos
Lawsuits and demonstrations greeted the Navy when sonar tests were held off Hawaii in early 1998, but sonar really emerged as a public issue only after whale acoustics expert Darlene Ketten, hired by the National Marine Fisheries Service, reported in June 2000 that Navy anti-submarine sonar tests off the northern Bahamas on March 15, 2000 may have caused 16 whales of four different species to beach themselves on the islands of Abaco, Grand Bahamas, and North Eleuthera.
Seven of the whales died, including four Cuvier beaked whales and a Blainville’s dense beaked whale, all of whom are considered extremely rare.
Most of the remains of whales allegedly killed by the Bahamian testing decomposed too soon for necropsy to definitively say what killed them, but Center for Whale Research founder Ken Balcomb happened to be present when several stranded beaked whales came up nearby.
His findings, and his struggle to have them recognized by scientists, marine mammal conservations, and the U.S. Navy, are detailed by Joshua Horwitz in his 2014 book War of the Whales.
(See War of the Whales.)