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Groups Demand That Navy Change Sonar Testing

Environmental groups and some Indian tribes, represented by Earthjustice, have gone to court to get the U.S. Navy to change the way it trains off the West Coast to avoid harming whales, dolphins and porpoises.

The Navy currently has a permit from the National Marine Fisheries Service, allowing it to train from Northern California to the Canadian border. In its training, the Navy uses all kinds of weapon and surveillance tools, including mid-frequency sonar. This is super high-powered sonar blasts used to “see” underwater. The sound waves bounce off objects like the seafloor or enemy subs and the echo is picked up and read by the Navy ships.

The problem is that the high-powered underwater sound blasts can harass, injure or kill whales, dolphins and porpoises, which are already extremely sensitive to sound. These animals send and receive sound waves to “see” and communicate underwater. Their ability to pick up sound is so good that some whales can hear each other under water hundreds of miles apart.

Everyone agrees the Navy needs to continue training. But as Earthjustice attorney Steve Mashuda told the NBC TV station in San Francisco, it can greatly reduce harm to whales and porpoises by simply avoiding areas where scientists tell us these marine mammals are at various times of the year. Much of this information already exists and an upcoming West Coast study will add to this knowledge later this year.

For example, harbor porpoise live in shallow water areas off our coast. The Navy could avoid harming them by avoiding these areas and limiting sonar use to deeper offshore waters.

With news of the Earthjustice legal challenge, California Congressman Mike Thompson weighed in, saying:

No one is saying the Navy cannot, or should not train. However, the Navy should train in a way that respects local communities, natural resources and our environment – and the National Marine Fisheries Service should be the agency that ensures those protections. Instead, the Navy wants authority to train wherever and however it wants. Expanded training should only be done after sound science determines that it won’t cause harm.

The Navy’s mid-frequency sonar has been implicated in mass strandings of marine mammals in the Bahamas, Greece, the Canary Islands and Spain, among other places. In 2004, during war games near Hawai’i, the Navy’s sonar was implicated in driving up to 200 melon-headed whales into shallow waters in Hanalei Bay.

In 2003, the USS Shoup, operating in Washington’s Haro Strait, was caught on tape as it blasted a group of endangered Southern Resident killer whales with mid-frequency sonar, causing them to attempt to flee the sound. Later dead porpoises were recovered in the area. Federal and independent scientists investigated and came to different conclusions as to how much responsibility the Shoup had for the deaths. Video of the incident was recorded by the Center for Whale Research:

Earthjustice is representing InterTribal Sinkyone Wilderness Council, Center for Biological Diversity, Friends of the Earth, Friends of the San Juans, Natural Resources Defense Council, and People For Puget Sound in this case.

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unEARTHED is a forum for the voices and stories of the people behind Earthjustice's work. The views and opinions expressed in this blog do not necessarily represent the opinion or position of Earthjustice or its board, clients, or funders. Learn more about Earthjustice.