July 5, 2006 – Environmentalists this week attacked the US Navy over the environmental impact of its underwater training exercises in the waters off Washington State and Hawaii.
A federal judge ruled Monday that the Navy cannot use sonar during multinational training exercises in the Pacific Ocean until a hearing this month on whether the sonar hurts marine mammals.
The court challenge was brought by environmentalists incensed that â€“ in spite of findings that high-intensity, mid-frequency sonar can harm whales and other marine life like dolphins and turtles â€“ the Navy planned to use the sonar during its Rim of the Pacific 2006 exercises. The â€œwar games,â€� which began last week, are being held off the coast of Hawaii and involve ships and submarines from eight nations, including the United Kingdom, Chile and South Korea.
The Navy said the exercises â€“ which will include 21 days of anti-submarine warfare training â€“ are crucial for maintaining homeland security.
When the Navy held similar exercises in 2004, about 150 melon-headed whales, which usual live in deep water and rarely approach shore, congregated in the shallows of Hanalei Bay until rescuers were able to help all but one find deeper water. The remaining whale later died.
In a report on that incident, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said the Navyâ€™s use of sonar was a â€œplausible, if not likely, contributing factor to the animals entering and remaining in the bay.â€�
The Navy was also implicated in the stranding of sixteen whales of three different species after using sonar in the Bahamas in 2000. Scientists found that the whales had hemorrhaging and bleeding near and around the ears.
In 2004, the Scientific Committee of the International Whaling Commission issued a report stating the â€œevidence is very convincing and appears overwhelmingâ€� that mid-frequency military sonar is associated with mass strandings of beaked whales, one of the species beached in the Bahamas.
Despite the potential threat to wildlife, the US National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) authorized the Navy to use sonar in the Rim of the Pacific exercise this year.
Environmental groups, including the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Ocean Futures Society, challenged the permit in court, winning this weekâ€™s temporary restraining order.
US District Court Judge Florence-Marie Cooper issued the order, saying the environmentalists had â€œsubmitted considerable convincing scientific evidence demonstrating that the Navyâ€™s use of [mid-frequency active] sonar can kill, injure, and disturb many marine species, including marine mammals.â€� Cooper noted that the Navy itself projected that 33,331 marine mammals would be â€œharassedâ€™ enough by the sonar exercises to disrupt their natural behavioral patterns.
The restraining order will stay in effect until July 18. The Navy exercise is scheduled to continue until July 28.
Cooperâ€™s ruling came despite a June 30 order by the Department of Defense declaring Navy exercises using sonar exempt from the Marine Mammal Protection Act for the next six months. Cooper, however, found that the Navy may also have violated the National Environmental Policy Act, which requires federal agencies to prepare environmental impact statements for activities that could affect the quality of the environment.
Also on Monday, the advocacy group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) revealed that the Navy had recently rejected suggestions from the NMFS and the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) intended to mitigate the impact of Naval exercises on marine wildlife in Washington Stateâ€™s partially protected Puget Sound.
PEER says it is redoubling efforts to elicit changes in Navy policies governing plastic explosive detonations in the Sound. Officials at both the NMFS and the FWS have argued for changes in the Navyâ€™s policy of setting off up to 300 explosions a year in three distinct areas of the coastal waters.
PEER says both the Navy and government overseers have dragged their feet on the issue, referring to the progress of interagency negotiations as â€œglacial.â€�
Meanwhile, even the smallest of the Navyâ€™s underwater training detonations can kill 25,000 fish in a single blast, according to a joint letter from the federal agencies to the Navyâ€™s top environmental-safety official. On average, 60 such exercises are carried out each year, the agencies report; most involve multiple detonations.