Navy needs to make concessions to train with sonar
A federal judge has ruled that the Navy cannot use sonar in war games because of its potential harm to marine mammals.
A FEDERAL judge has delivered a severe rebuke
to the Pentagon by blocking the Navy's use of mid-frequency sonar during multinational war games in Hawaiian waters this month. The Defense Department needs to make major concessions to environmentalists in order to go forward with these important exercises without endangering marine mammals.
A study by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in April found sonar to be "a plausible, if not likely," cause of the stranding of more than 150 melon-headed whales in shallow waters off Kauai during the biannual 2004 Rim of the Pacific, or RIMPAC, exercises. Navy officials have remained in denial.
Ironically, four environmental groups were joined as plaintiffs in the lawsuit by ocean explorer Jean-Michel Cousteau, whose film, "Voyage to Kure," influenced President Bush last month to name the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands a national monument. Cousteau was at the president's side when he signed the proclamation.
NOAA placed some restrictions on sonar usage in this year's RIMPAC games, but the Defense Department invoked an exemption in a 2004 authorization measure from requirements of the Marine Mammal Protection Act. The Pentagon acknowledged that it is not exempt from requirements of the National Environmental Protection Act, which U.S. District Judge Florence-Marie Cooper ruled in Los Angeles that the sonar would violate.
In her ruling, Cooper wrote that environmentalists had "submitted considerable convincing scientific evidence that the Navy's use of MFA (mid-frequency active) sonar can kill, injure and disturb many marine species, including marine mammals."
Rear Adm. James Symonds, the Navy director of environmental readiness, said the Navy would employ "habitat controls, safety zones around ships, trained lookouts, extra precautions during chokepoint exercises."
Conservationists want the Navy to add extra marine mammal spotters aboard ships during sonar training, reduce sonar power at night and other times when spotters' visibility is compromised and avoid areas in or near significant habitats, such as whale breeding and feeding areas and migratory routes. Those appear to be reasonable precautions, and compromises should be attainable.
This year's war games began June 26 and are scheduled to run through July 28. Judge Cooper has given the two sides until next Monday to reach a settlement. She has scheduled a hearing on July 18 to consider making the ban permanent, jeopardizing future naval war games.
In a statement following Cooper's ruling, the Navy said sonar is "the only effective means we have to detect and quickly target hostile submarines and keep sea lanes open," and the sonar training is needed "to protect our nation's ships, shores and allies." That importance should compel the Navy to find a way to use it in training without harming whales.