Looks like it’s no longer full steam ahead for the U.S. Navy when it comes to its military exercises in the Pacific, the nonprofit environmental law organization Earthjustice announced yesterday. In an historic federal court settlement, the Navy has agreed to limit its use mid-frequency sonar and explosive underwater demolitions during its military training exercises off Hawaii and California. In late March of this year, a federal court in Honolulu found that the Navy’s training illegally harms far too many marines species, including whales, dolphins and seals.
“If a whale or dolphin can’t hear, it can’t survive,” said David Henkin, an attorney for Earthjustice (which brought the initial court challenge on behalf of the Conservation Council for Hawaii, the Animal Welfare Institute, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Ocean Mammal Institute), in a Sept. 14 news release. “We challenged the Navy’s plan because it would have unnecessarily harmed whales, dolphins, and endangered marine mammals, with the Navy itself estimating that more than 2,000 animals would be killed or permanently injured. By agreeing to this settlement, the Navy acknowledges that it doesn’t need to train in every square inch of the ocean and that it can take reasonable steps to reduce the deadly toll of its activities.”
According to Earthjustice, here are the new rules the Navy must follow when training in Hawaiian waters:
- The Navy can no longer use mid-frequency active sonar and explosives for training on the eastern side of Hawaii Island and north of Molokai and Maui. This will protect Hawaiian monk seals and small resident populations of toothed whales, like the endangered false killer whales and Cuvier’s beaked whales.
- The Navy must not exceed a set number of major training exercises in the channel between Maui and Hawaii Island and on the western side of Hawaii Island. This limit the time marine mammals in the area will be subjected to the sonar and explosives the Navy uses in its big training exercises.
- Navy surface vessels must use “extreme caution” and travel at a safe speed when transiting the humpback whale habitat, to minimize the chance of whale strikes.
“Some of the marine mammals threatened by Navy activities are already on the brink of extinction, such as the Hawaiian monk seal, our state mammal and one of the world’s most endangered species,” said Conservation Council for Hawaii’s Marjorie Ziegler in that Sept. 14 news release. “This settlement helps protect marine habitat the [National Marine] Fisheries Service just last month identified as essential to the seal’s survival.”
According to this Sept. 14 LA Times story on the settlement, a Navy spokesperson explained that the Navy went along with the settlement because of “the real possibility that the court would stop critically important training and testing.” The Times then quoted Lt. Cmdr. Matt Knight, spokesman for the U.S. Pacific Fleet, as saying that the “Navy has been, and will continue to be, good environmental stewards as we prepare for and conduct missions in support of our national security.”
Click here for my 2012 coverstory on the U.S. Navy’s reasoning and explanation for its military exercises, and how those exercises harm marine life.
Photo of USS Ronald Reagan en route to Hawaii to participate in RIMPAC 2014 exercises: MC2 Jacob Estes/U.S. Navy/Wikimedia Commons