For many years, the U.S. Navy’s decision to conduct sonar tests in ecologically sensitive areas of the ocean has been a major cause for concern amongst marine animal protection groups. When the National Marine Fisheries Service approved a controversial five-year military sonar scheme off the coast of Hawaii and California last year, the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) amongst other organizations were aghast.

According to NRDC, over 9,593,430 cases of partial deafness would result from the testing, with spokesperson Joel Reynolds saying that he was “at a loss to explain how the Fisheries Service justifies permitting this amount of harm as ‘protecting marine animals.'” He further added that the approval of this scheme “violates federal law, as described at length in a lawsuit filed by the Natural Resources Defense Council.”

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And now it looks like his view has been vindicated! A federal court in Honolulu has ordered a settlement in two cases that challenged the U.S. Navy’s training and testing activities around the waters of Hawaii and Southern California. Under the terms of the settlement, the Navy has agreed, for the first time, to designate certain key areas of marine habitat as being off-limits for dangerous mid-frequency sonar testing and the use of powerful explosives.

Key terms of the settlement include:

  • The Navy is prohibited from using mid-frequency active sonar between Santa Catalina Island and San Nicolas Island, as well as the coast of San Diego, the eastern side of the island of Hawai’i and the northern side of Moloka’i and Maui. This will help protect blue whales, beaked whales, Hawaiian monk seals, and numerous small resident populations of toothed whales.
  • The Navy is prohibited from exceeding a set number of major training exercises in the channel between Maui and Hawai’i Island, and on the western side of Hawai’i Island.
  • Navy surface vessels must use “extreme caution” and travel at a safe speed to minimize the risk of ship strikes in humpback whale habitat.

Rhea Suh, president of the NRDC, welcomed the decision. She said, “We can protect our fleet and safeguard our whales. This settlement shows the way to do both, ensuring the security of U.S. Navy operations while reducing the mortal hazard to some of the most majestic creatures on Earth. Our Navy will be the better for this, and so will the oceans our sailors defend.”

Earthjustice, the environmental defense group which brought the initial challenge to the Navy’s latest round of training and testing on behalf of several organizations, also hailed the settlement as a major breakthrough in the protection of Hawaii and California’s marine wildlife. David Henkin, Earthjustice attorney, said, “If a 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.”

The settlement expires in 2018, but it is heartening to know that for at least three years, vulnerable marine animal populations in Hawaii and Southern California will be granted a reprove from the sonar bombardment which has been proven to injure and deafen them, in addition to disrupting their natural communication patterns. Let’s hope that this step in the right direction will translate into further progress for marine animals in the further!

Lead image source: NOAA Photo Library/Flickr