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Judge Quiets Navy's Impact on Humpback Whales

A Hawai'i federal district judge has prohibited the Navy from blasting high-intensity, mid-frequency active (MFA) sonar during military exercises in Hawai'i's waters to minimize harm to nearby humpback whales.

Judge David A. Ezra found that the Navy was violating federal law, after Earthjustice sued the Navy last May for violating the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the Coastal Zone Management Act (CZMA). As a result of the judgment, the Navy also prepared an environmental impact statement to determine the effect of its MFA sonar use, which has caused mass strandings of marine mammals in such places as the Bahamas, Greece and Spain.

The judge noted that the Navy's harm threshold -- 173 decibels (dB) -- contradicts the best available science and "cast into serious doubt the Navy's assertion that, despite over 60,000 potential exposures to MFA sonar, marine mammals will not be jeopardized." 

The court determined that the Navy had failed to explore reasonable alternatives to conducting its exercises, failed to notify and involve the public as required by law and failed to take into account the potential for serious harm from an exceptionally controversial activity.

Under the decision, the Navy must take additional protective measures during its undersea warfare exercises, such as reducing sonar power whenever a marine mammal is spotted and ramping up sonar power slowly to give the whales adequate time to escape the noise.

"Today's ruling affirms that the Navy is not above the law, and that it can, and must, take greater precautions to protect marine life from the devastating effects of its high-intensity sonar," said Paul Achitoff of Earthjustice.