Navy agrees to restrict sonar for war games
The federal guidelines are meant to protect marine mammals
For the first time in the 35 years of the Pacific Rim naval war games, the U.S. Navy and its allies will be restricted on where they can use sonar because of possible adverse effects on marine mammals.
Capt. Matt Brown, Pacific Fleet spokesman, said the new restrictions worked out over the past seven months with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will have "an impact" in restricting the use of active sonar in shallow waters.
A focus of this year's Rim of the Pacific exercises is shallow-water anti-submarine warfare. In the past, the threat was from Soviet submarines in the deep waters, but now the Navy must protect shallow "choke points" in Asia and must support operations in shallow waters, such as amphibious landings.
Thirty-five warships from eight Pacific Rim nations will be participating in this summer's Rim of the Pacific exercises that will begin Sunday. However, the actual naval war games at sea get under way July 5.
Cmdr. Dean Leech, a Pacific Fleet lawyer who has worked with NOAA, said the warships from the U.S. Navy, Australia, Canada, Chile, Peru, South Korea, United Kingdom and Japan will not be allowed to turn on their sonar systems within 14 miles of a restricted zone around the islands of Hawaii.
The designated restricted areas begin from the point where the water is about 660 feet deep, Leech said.
That means in some places of the state, the restricted zone could be just offshore or in other places farther away, he added.
Other restrictions under NOAA's permit, or "take authorization," include requiring the military to:
» Conduct aerial surveys before any exercise, looking for marine mammals that might be in the area and their behavior pattern.
» Station observers on shore to monitor "unusual and unique activity" by the marine mammals as the exercise is being conducted.
» Evaluate what occurred during the month-long naval exercise.
There are two exceptions to the NOAA permit. One allows nearly unrestricted active sonar use in the waters off Kauai's Barking Sands Pacific Missile Range Facility. The other exception is for what the Navy calls "choke point" exercises in the channel between Maui and the Big island and Niihau and Kauai. Those areas are similar to narrow, shallow areas in Asia like the Strait of Malacca -- considered one of the most vital shipping lanes in the area.
Leech described NOAA's approach as "very conservative" and takes into consideration concerns from some organizations that "there are higher concentration of marine mammals close to shore, and they become affected by the use of active sonar. That is an issue the scientists are still discussing, and out of caution basically we are staying away from those areas."
Last October, the Natural Resources Defense Council, a nonprofit environmental organization, filed suit against the Navy, charging that the Navy's use of sonar can kill, injure and disturb many species including marine mammals. Two years ago, during the last RIMPAC exercise, a pod of 200 melon-headed whales ended up in Hanalei Bay on Kauai. However, a NOAA investigation could not trace the incident to any of the RIMPAC naval activities.
Other preventive measures that will govern the use of active sonar only during RIMPAC to protect marine mammals include lowering the power of a ship's sonar by:
» Six decibels when a marine mammal is sighted within 3,300 feet.
» Ten decibels on a marine mammal sighting at 1,650 feet.
» Turning it off when the marine mammal is within 660 feet.