The U.S. Navy wants approval to continue war games in Hawaii and California waters that include naval ships firing at air targets, Marine battalions practicing amphibious assaults and submarines shooting explosive torpedoes.
The Navy has been training in the region for decades and says that the exercises are essential for the country’s national security.
The Navy also lists a range of ways to limit the environmental impact of its activities, such as stopping sonar use when whales are sighted within a certain distance. But as it solicits comments on the proposal, the Navy is still likely to get an earful from environmentalists about how its use of explosives and sonar may harm marine mammals.
David Henkin is an attorney at Earthjustice, a nonprofit environmental law firm. He filed a lawsuit the last time the Navy proposed training in the waters around Hawaii and California, and won.
A federal judge ruled in 2015 that the National Marine Fisheries Service shouldn’t have approved the Navy’s training and testing proposal because it violated federal law protecting marine mammals. The Navy needs to get approval under the Marine Mammal Protection Act every five years if its training will disrupt whales and dolphins.
In her ruling, Judge Susan Mollway said she was perplexed by the approval.
“Searching the administrative record’s reams of pages for some explanation as to why the Navy’s activities were authorized by the National Marine Fisheries Service, this court feels like the sailor in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ who, trapped for days on a ship becalmed in the middle of the ocean, laments, ‘Water, water every where, Nor any drop to drink,’” the judge wrote at the time.
The ruling prompted the Navy to reach a settlement with Earthjustice limiting the amount of training in certain areas off Maui, Hawaii Island and Southern California.
Henkin is still reviewing the Navy’s latest analysis. He said that at first glance, he likes how the Navy is willing to limit training in certain areas that are important for marine mammals.
But Henkin said that the plan appears less protective of biologically important areas than the 2015 settlement. He said it falls short of considering more protective training alternatives.
“There’s no good reason why they can’t look at alternatives that would involve protection of marine mammal habitats, let’s say around Kauai, where we just had this recent stranding event,” Henkin said. He noted that the cause of the five pilot whales’ stranding is still unknown but that even if the Navy wasn’t involved, the event illustrates how vulnerable marine mammals are.
Even limiting training doesn’t go far enough for some. Robin Baird, a scientist who studies whales and dolphins, said that ideally, the Navy should not train at all in the waters surrounding Hawaii Island because it’s home to so many whales.
“There is no other place in the world where there are 10 resident species around an island,” Baird said. “It’s an area that has a unique combination of oceanographic conditions that have made it sort of an ideal case for these populations to survive over thousands of years.”
The scientist listed several species — Cuvier’s beaked whales, dwarf sperm whales, Blaineville’s beaked whales, pigmy killer whales and melon-headed whales — that are particularly susceptible to the impacts of Navy sonar. Baird said about 450 Kohala melon-headed whales in the waters and there’s a potential that the entire population could be hurt by Navy training and end up stuck on a beach.
“The Navy needs to recognize that there are these resident populations of species that are known to be susceptible to Navy sonar and they need to put an exclusion zone to protect them,” Baird said.
UPDATE Navy spokeswoman Kathy Isobe said in an email late Monday that the Navy’s latest plan reduces the levels of active sonar and duration of underwater sound, as well as the number of sinking exercises.
The draft study also includes more analysis of increased training in maritime security operations and testing of new vessels, aircrafts and weapons systems.
“We strive to protect marine species and reduce its effects on the marine environment when training and testing at sea,” Isobe wrote.
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