More compromise needed in disputes over sonar use
The Navy has agreed to limit use of low-frequency sonar in ocean areas around Hawaii.
A settlement between the Navy and an alliance of environmental organizations will once again restrict use of a loud sonar system through the world's ocean, including extensive areas surrounding Hawaii.
The agreement will shield whales and other marine mammals from low-frequency sound waves that disrupt the sea creatures' ability to steer clear of predators and find food.
However, four other disputes on other types of sonar operations remain unresolved, one of which is headed for the U.S. Supreme Court.
The Navy and plaintiff groups should attempt to reach enduring compromises governing sonar activity to assure consistent training and best practices in surveillance while avoiding courtrooms. The settlement on low-frequency active sonar demonstrates that national security and protecting marine mammals are not necessarily mutually exclusive alternatives. That said, it came as the result of a lawsuit.
The suit was filed by environmental groups led by the Natural Resources Defense Council after the National Marine Fisheries Service issued a permit that allowed the sonar to be deployed in more than 70 percent of the world's oceans.
A previously issued permit had already been ruled unlawful, which led to an earlier agreement that restricted the Navy's training. The groups alleged that the second permit also violated federal laws, including the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the National Environmental Policy Act, and the court again agreed.
The current pact allows low-frequency tests and training in limited areas of the North Pacific. The Navy cannot conduct operations near the Hawaii Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary, the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument or within 57 miles of the islands. It must adhere to other measures to protect breeding grounds.
Low-frequency active sonar fills sweeping ocean areas with sonic waves to detect submarines at great distances. By the Navy's estimates, the sounds can be maintained at 140 decibels as far as 300 miles away.
The case the Supreme Court will hear involves mid-frequency sonar that travels shorter distances, but is more widely used and said to cause more harm. The Navy is appealing a federal appeals court ruling restricting it in training exercises near the Southern California coast. President Bush attempted to excuse the Navy from environmental laws while the case was on appeal, but the court turned that down.
Litigation over sonar has become a constant in the federal courts. While the Navy needs to train sailors and test its equipment, there are laws on the books to protect ocean wildlife from harm. A balance between both can be achieved and it is incumbent on interested parties to find that middle ground.
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