Audrey McAvoy / Associated Press – 2009-01-13 22:15:51
HONOLULU (January 13, 2009) — The US Navy was granted a one-year permit to train with sonar and bombs in Hawaii waters so long as it tries to protect whales and other marine animals from harm.
The Navy warned that whales and other marine life may be harmed, or even killed, though that wasn’t expected. Some marine species — particularly beaked whales — appear much more vulnerable to harm from sonar, and scientists are not sure why.
The National Marine Fisheries Service still is considering Navy requests to train with mid-frequency active sonar in waters off Southern California, the East Coast and the Gulf of Mexico.
The Marine Mammal Protection Act requires the Navy to ask for the fisheries service’s permission to carry out activities that may affect marine mammals.
The authorization that took effect Jan. 5 also allows the Navy to set off bombs and fire guns during Hawaii drills.
The fisheries service said Monday it will reissue a permit each of the next five years so long as the Navy follows a list of measures to protect the animals. It is requiring sailors to shut off sonar when marine mammals are nearby, use extra caution near Maui where humpback whales breed and calve, and avoid detonating explosives within certain areas.
The fisheries service said it carefully balanced the need to protect marine mammals with the Navy’s need to maintain military readiness. The Navy must reapply to train with sonar after 2014.
Paul Achitoff, an Earthjustice attorney in Honolulu who has sued the Navy over sonar in the past, said Tuesday that the fisheries service should have required the Navy to do more.
“What the National Marine Fisheries Service is doing is basically the same as the status quo, which is to allow the Navy to conduct sonar exercises with a minimum of precautions,” Achitoff said. “The fisheries service has acceded to the demands of the Navy with little critical oversight.”
Achitoff said Earthjustice was examining the fisheries service’s decision to determine whether it should be challenged in court.
For the past two years, the Pentagon has used another federal law — the National Defense Authorization Act — to exempt the Navy from the permit requirements.
The Defense Department said then that the Navy needed time to study how sonar affects the environment before it sought regulators’ permission to use the technology.
The Navy has spent the past few years conducting environmental studies for underwater training ranges around the country.
Sailors use sonar to track enemy submarines. Sonar operators send pulses of sound through the ocean and then listen for objects, such as submarines, that the sound strikes.
Scientists say the sound may disrupt the feeding patterns of marine mammals. The sound may also startle some species of whales, causing them to surface rapidly.
The Navy has been using mid-frequency active sonar for some 40 years, but its military importance has been growing even as concerns about the environmental effects of sonar have increased.
The Navy is particularly worried about being able to track a growing fleet of quiet diesel-electric submarines — owned by China, Iran and North Korea among other countries — that are difficult to spot and follow underwater.
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