Navy Ordered To Limit Sonar Use In Order To Protect Marine Life

The United States Navy has recently been given a reprieve from the previous lawsuits brought against them by organizations such as Natural Resources Defense Council and Earthjustice. The Navy has agreed to the put forth in the settlement and will limit their testing of sonar and explosive equipment in key whale territory such as that off the coast of Hawaii and Southern California. Whales, dolphins, and other marine mammals were being harmed by the sounds emitting from such actions.

In 2000, there was a surge of beached whales and certain other species off the coast of the island of Bahamas, and ensuing investigations by scientists concluded that the sonar testing that the Navy was doing in that area was responsible. The National Marine Fisheries Service, along with the U.S. Navy, did their own independent investigations and came to the same conclusion, that the instances of beached and dead whales was being caused by the sonars. The damages inflicted upon the mammals was observed through injuries caused by explosive testing performed by the United States Navy in the areas mentioned.

The lawyers from each company agreed that there was no need to compromise the lives of over 2,000 dolphins and whales for the sake of naval security. The Center For Biological Diversity report quoted the President of the NRDC, Rhea Suh and she suggested that there existed a way to protect the U.S. Naval fleet as well as whales and dolphins. It was pointed out by attorney David Henkin, on behalf of the organization, EarthJustice that these animals are highly dependent on their hearing for survival.

“If a whale or dolphin can’t hear it can’t survive. 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.”

Sonar waves work by bouncing sound waves off surrounding objects, which then creates a map to help locate objects hidden in the water. Sound travels extremely well underwater, and thus these sonar pings from Navy ships can cause irreparable damage to the hearing of the ‘hyper-sensitive hearing’ of under water mammals. Their navigation, health and life are all dependent on their hearing as this helps coordinate their movements. Essentially, the testing performed by the military organization would severely compromise the population of the whales and dolphins possibly to the point of extinction in these areas.

PRI wrote that it was two years ago that the suit against the Navy was first brought by the NRDC, after the Navy’s 5 year plan to testing and training off Hawaii and Southern California. The company claimed that there were not adequate security measures in place to protect the marine life. Zak Smith, a senior attorney with NRDC mentioned that even according the U.S. Navy’s own estimations there would be approximately 9.5 million incidences of harmed mammals during that period.

The Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act were what saw the NDRC winning their court claim and ensuring that the animals that the organisations are committed to protect would be safe. The agreement resulted in the U.S. Navy’s withdrawal of their original plans and it is the hope of Smith that they have been alerted to the long-term devastating impact of unnecessarily harming marine life. The military’s sonar signal often sends out traumatizing notes to the animals who respond by running ashore.

“It’s a huge victory for conservation of marine mammals because, for the first time, it asks, ‘How can we achieve our national security goals and our training goals while at the same time maximizing protection for marine mammals?”

The Navy is said to be working in tandem with fisheries to identify any biologically important areas to identify any that may be in the path of their continued plans and necessary steps taken to protect the mammals that could be harmed. The ruling handed down in Hawaii by the federal court forbids the Navy from using explosives and mid-frequency sonars on the north side of Maui, Hawaii, where toothed whales and endangered monk seals can be found. In California, the Navy agreed that in any areas where whale species could be found ships would be slowed and in addition they will not use explosives or sonar between Santa Catalina and San Nicolas Island as an important for the beaked whale is located. According to BBC News, there will also have to be a set amount of training areas established. The agreement also ends the suit that the wildlife conservation groups had brought against the fisheries in the area for permitting the damage.

The result of the agreement will hopefully mean a safe haven for the marine animals and fewer instances of injuries or death of the mammals due to military sonar activity.

[Photo Courtesy Of Wolfgang Kaehler/ Getty Images]