Sonar’s fate murky
U.S. Department of Justice officials told a federal judge yesterday the Navy's sonar training off Hawaii will have less of an impact on whales and other marine mammals than similar exercises conducted off Southern California.
Environmental groups have sued to stop the exercises that are expected to resume in March until the Navy adopts additional mitigating measures to reduce the impact of sonar. They say sonar can seriously injure or kill marine mammals.
A federal judge in California issued an injunction last month that created a 12-nautical-mile no-sonar zone off Southern California.
The judge upheld the injunction a few weeks later, ruling against a waiver signed by President Bush exempting the Navy and its anti-submarine warfare exercises from the decision. Bush argued the exercises were essential to national security.
The Navy has appealed the decision.
Luther L. Hajek, an attorney with the Justice Department's natural resources section, said the exercises planned off Hawaii last only three to four days, unlike the ones in California, which last up to two weeks.
He said fewer marine mammals in Hawaii would be exposed to sonar levels that would cause temporary hearing loss.
Hajek added that the Navy already mitigates against the effects of sonar on marine mammals.
The Navy posts lookouts on ships to search for whales. Sailors also lower the power of its sonar when marine mammals are nearby.
Jay Govindan, an attorney with department's wildlife and marine resources section, said the environmental groups that initiated the lawsuit had not shown sonar causes irreparable harm to an entire species.
"The training that the Navy conducts is not at the expense of the environment," he said. "The Navy has been a good steward of the environment."
But Paul Achitoff, an attorney with Earthjustice, said independent scientists have agreed that sonar hurts marine mammals. Earthjustice sued the Navy in May on behalf of five groups, including the Ocean Mammal Institute and the Animal Welfare Institute.
He said the Navy's existing mitigation measures are insufficient. The service should reduce power at times of low visibility, stay out of shallow waters and stay away from areas where especially vulnerable animals like the beaked whale are found, he said.
The Navy "needs to do a better job of safeguarding the environment," he said.