Sonar Banned to Protect Whales


A beachgoer watches as a pod of about 200 melon-headed whales swims near the shore of Hanalei Bay, Hawaii, on July 3, 2004. The whales, which typically stay about 20 miles (32 kilometers) out to sea, ventured within 100 yards (91 meters) of shore. Environmentalists blamed U.S. Navy sonar activities held at about the same time for confusing the whales.

Yesterday the Navy was forced to stop using high-intensity sonar during training exercises off Hawaii after an environmental group won a temporary restraining order.

Photograph by AP Photo/The Garden Island, Dennis Fujimoto


Sonar Banned in U.S. Navy Exercise to Protect Hawaii Whales


Maryann Mott

for National Geographic News


July 6, 2006


The U.S. Navy was forced to stop using high-intensity sonar during training exercises off Hawaii yesterday after an environmental group won a temporary restraining order.


The exercises would have involved generating underwater mid-frequency sound waves to search for “enemy” submarines.


But environmentalists are concerned that the sound waves have a harmful effect on marine mammals, such as whales and dolphins, that swim in Hawaiian waters (map of Hawaii).


This year about 19,000 service men and women from eight countries are participating in the Navy’s Rim of the Pacific exercise, the world’s largest international maritime training event.


For now the group has been training with passive sonar—using microphones to track noises made by underwater objects—and visual searches, says Vice Adm. Barry Costello, commander of the U.S. Third Fleet.


But the Navy has asked for an appeal on the restraining order, citing a need for more realistic training practices.


“Preventing ships, helicopters, airplanes, and submarines from actively hunting submarines with mid-frequency active sonar seriously compromises the realism of the exercise and degrades the sailors’ training,” Costello said in a written statement.


Stranded Whales


The temporary restraining order was issued Monday, just days after the U.S. Department of Defense granted the Navy a six-month exemption from federal laws protecting marine mammals.


Mid-frequency sonar has been linked to mass strandings and deaths of whales, dolphins, and other marine species around the world, says the Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC), which filed the lawsuit.


This is the third time the NRDC has sued the Navy over sonar safety concerns, says organization spokesperson Hamlet Paoletti.


Marine biologists believe strandings can be caused by many factors, including parasites, pollution, trauma, and starvation.


Whether sonar contributes to strandings has long been a source of debate between animal welfare groups and the military.


Sonar technology emits high-decibel sound waves across tens or even hundreds of miles of ocean to reveal objects in the waves’ path.



One such event environmentalists point to is the stranding of 150 melon-headed whales off Hawaii in July 2004 shortly after the military conducted mid-frequency sonar exercises.


A report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration concluded sonar was likely a contributing factor to the stranding.


The Navy denies that sonar played a part in that incident.


Security Issue


The military argues that mid-frequency sonar has become more important to national security in recent years, as other countries acquire quieter operating submarines.


About 160 ships in the Navy’s fleet are equipped with mid-frequency sonar, but it’s only turned on during training and maintenance activities, Navy officials add.


The NRDC counters that the government should use “common sense measures,” such as an extra marine-mammal spotter on board ships.


The military should also avoid conducting sonar exercises near marine mammal feeding and breeding areas, the council says.


“Mid-frequency sonar can be used under slightly different conditions and can achieve all the military needs in terms of training without harassing or damaging or killing any marine mammals in the region,” Paoletti said.


In the restraining order, U.S. District Court Judge Florence-Marie Cooper wrote that the Navy’s failure to take a hard look at the impact of its training exercises was an “arbitrary, capricious” violation of the National Environmental Policy Act.


She ordered the two sides to meet and resolve their differences by July 12. If an agreement is not reached, a hearing will take place on July 18.


Meanwhile, the Navy’s international war games will continue until the end of this month.


The NRDC expressed concerns over the exercises taking place in waters near the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Marine National Monument, which were created just two weeks ago by U.S. President George W. Bush. (Read “Hawaii Islands Named World’s Largest Marine Sanctuary.”)


The monument includes a 1,200-mile-long (1,930-kilometer-long) chain of relatively undisturbed island and coral reef habitat that is home to more than 7,000 species.


The Navy told the Associated Press it did not plan to use mid-frequency sonar inside the newly protected area.





Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: