Court Allows Sonar in RIMPAC War Games With New Restrictions

LOS ANGELES, California, July 9, 2006 (ENS) - The U.S. Navy will be permitted to use mid-frequency sonar during the eight nation Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) military exercises now taking place in the waters near Hawaii. The federal judge who last week issued a temporary restraining order against the sonar, which is known to injure and kill whales and dolphins, has approved a settlement between the Navy and conservation groups that permits sonar training.

The Navy filed an emergency motion with the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco Wednesday seeking to reinstate active sonar use.

The settlement agreement, approved Friday by Judge Florence-Marie Cooper of the U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, requires new safeguards, including a 25 nautical mile sonar-free buffer zone around the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Marine National Monument created in June by President George W. Bush.

It also provides for increases in monitoring for marine mammals during all sonar drills. The month long exercise off the coast of Hawaii involves more than 19,000 military members from eight nations. Sonar training starts this week. Navy officials say mid-range active sonar is the most effective tool for hunting submarines.

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The aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln leaves Pearl Harbor, Hawaii to participate in the RIMPAC war games. July 6, 2006. (Photo by MCS 2nd Class Rebecca Moat courtesy U.S. Navy)
"This settlement confirms that measures to protect our oceans can and must be part of the Navy’s training for submarine defense," said Joel Reynolds, a senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and director of its Marine Mammal Protection Project.

The NRDC was one of the plaintiff groups whose lawsuit against the Navy led to the temporary restraining order issued by Judge Cooper July 3. Other plaintiffs were the International Fund for Animal Welfare, the Cetacean Society International, the Ocean Futures Society (OFS), and (OFS) founder and director Jean-Michel Cousteau.

The settlement requires all Navy personnel listening through underwater detection microphones to monitor for marine mammals and report the detection of any marine mammal to the appropriate watch station for action.

It requires aerial surveillance for marine mammals during sonar drills and the reporting of sightings to a marine mammal response officer.

The Navy is required to have at least one dedicated and three non-dedicated marine mammal observers on every surface sonar vessel during all sonar drills, and to add an additional dedicated marine mammal observer during the three exercises occurring in channels between the islands.

The Navy also is required to publicize in the local Hawaii media a hotline for reporting marine mammal incidents.

"We are pleased that the highest leadership in the U.S. Navy hierarchy has agreed to protective measures never before included in RIMPAC exercises," said Richard Kendall, a senior litigation partner at the Los Angeles law firm of Irell & Manella, co-counsel with NRDC in the lawsuit. "This is a significant step forward in the protection of our oceans."

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Vice Admiral Barry Costello, Commander, RIMPAC 2006 Coalition Task Force, addresses reporters at a press conference on July 5, 2006. (Photo by Tech Sgt Chris Vadnais courtesy U.S. Air Force)
"We work very closely with people to explain to them all the mitigation procedures that we already have in effect," said Vice Admiral Barry Costello, RIMPAC 2006 coalition task force commander. "The additional lookout training, the additional aerial surveillance … if we sight any marine mammals we decrease the power of our sonars or turn them off, depending on the situation," he said.

RIMPAC is the world's largest biennial maritime exercise. Conducted in the waters off Hawaii, RIMPAC brings together military forces from Australia, Canada, Chile, Japan, Peru, South Korea, the United Kingdom and the United States.

RIMPAC has been going on for 35 years," said Admiral Costello. "We've done 20 of these [exercises]. We've been good stewards of the environment and we intend fully to continue to be that way."

The Department of Defense has authorized a six month national defense exemption from requirements of the Marine Mammal Protection Act for naval activity involving mid-frequency active sonar use during major training exercises and on established ranges and operating areas. The U.S. Navy says it sought the exemption in response to the conservationists' lawsuit.

Reynolds said, "Military readiness does not require, and our laws do not allow, our natural resources to be sacrificed in the name of national defense. That is a false choice, and this lawsuit has vindicated the essential principle that none of us, including the Navy, is above the law."

Whales exposed to high-intensity mid-frequency sonar have stranded themselves and died on beaches around the world. During the last RIMPAC exercises in 2004, 150 melon-headed whales beached themselves in Hanalei Bay on the island of Kauai after sonar was used in the area.

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One of seven beaked whales that died in the Bahamas in March 2000 after exposure to active sonar. (Photo courtesy Center for Whale Research)
Other marine mammal strandings in Washington state, North Carolina and the Bahamas have been linked to sonar blasts. Whales and dolphins have beached with bleeding around the brain and in the ears and severe lesions in their organ tissue.

One of the best-documented incidents took place in the Bahamas, in March 2000, when 16 whales of four species stranded along 150 miles of shoreline as ships blasted the area with sonar.

The U.S. Navy later acknowledged in an official report that its use of sonar was the likely cause of the stranding.

The Bahamas stranding incident was the first case in which researchers were able to collect fresh specimens from whale carcasses to allow research to investigate the causes of these whale strandings. Necropsy results revealed internal bleedings around ear organs and brains.

During the last RIMPAC exercise in 2004, there was a mass stranding of more than 150 melon-headed whales in Kauai. A federal government investigation concluded that the Navy’s sonar use was the "plausible, if not likely" cause of the stranding.

At lower intensities, the loud sonar can interfere with the ability of marine mammals to navigate, avoid predators, find food, and care for their young.

Friday's settlement has no bearing on the lawsuit brought by NRDC and other groups last October over the Navy’s use of mid-frequency sonar in other training exercises. That lawsuit is still pending in federal court in Los Angeles.