The U.S. Navy has agreed to limit the use of underwater explosives and specific frequencies of sonar during training in certain sensitive areas to protect whales, dolphins, and other marine mammals from the potentially damaging sounds. The agreement is deemed a major success for environmental legal aid organization Earthjustice, who have been fighting for this for more than a decade.
“If a whale or dolphin can’t hear, it can’t survive,” explains David Henkin, an attorney for Earthjustice. “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.”
The conservation groups involved in the two cases that were brought against the Navy in Honolulu, Hawaii, claim that the mid-range frequency sonar and explosives used by the military during training exercises cause damage and disruption to the whales and dolphins in the Pacific. Previous studies have shown how these high-intensity and mid-frequency sounds can drive the cetaceans to strand themselves, stop them from feeding, or cause them to avoid favorable areas.
In fact, it was just earlier this year that a U.K. report finally concluded that the Royal Navy was directly responsible for the stranding of 70 whales in Scotland after the detonation of underwater bombs. “This settlement proves what we’ve been saying all along,” said Marsha Green, president of Ocean Mammal Institute. “The Navy can meet its training and testing needs and, at the same time, provide significant protections to whales and dolphins by limiting the use of sonar and explosives in vital habitat.”
The new ruling, handed down by the federal court in Hawaii, will prohibit the Navy from using mid-frequency sonar or explosives on the north side of Maui, Hawaii, protecting the endangered monk seals and toothed whales that live there. It will also limit ship speeds across humpback whale habitats. In California, the Navy will not be allowed to use sonar or explosives in an important beaked whale habitat between Santa Catalina and San Nicolas Island. Ships will also be slowed where blue whales are feeding, and near blue, fin, and gray whale migratory routes.
“By agreeing to this settlement,” continued Henkin, “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.”