Navy Rejects State's Efforts to Protect Whales from Sonar in Hawai`i

Claims authority to ignore state law


Koalani Kaulukukui, Earthjustice, (808) 599-2436
Marsha Green, Ocean Mammal Institute, (610) 670-7386

The Navy this week has refused to comply with the Hawai’i Coastal Zone Management Program’s conditions that would protect Hawai’i’s threatened and endangered marine mammals from the Navy’s high-intensity, mid-frequency sonar. The Navy estimates that its sonar use in Hawai’i each year will affect tens of thousands of Hawai’i’s whales, dolphins, and monk seals at sound levels known to have killed or harmed marine mammals around the world.

Hawai’i’s Coastal Zone Management Program’s conditions seek to protect Hawai’i’s threatened and endangered marine mammals by requiring the Navy to keep the level of sonar within the coastal zone below 145 decibels. The coastal zone extends from the shoreline out to three miles. Serious behavioral effects, including mass strandings and mortalities, are known to have occurred when marine mammals were exposed to sonar.

The state’s conditions also require the Navy to extend protective measures ordered by the Hawai’i federal district court earlier this year to all future sonar exercises in Hawai’i. In May, Earthjustice, on behalf of Ocean Mammal Institute, Animal Welfare Institute, KAHEA, Center for Biological Diversity, and Surfrider Foundation Kaua’i Chapter obtained an injunction from Hawai’i federal district Judge David A. Ezra that enjoined the Navy from carrying out its Undersea Warfare Exercises in Hawai’i’s waters without additional mitigation marine mammal protections. The court-ordered protections include dedicated look-outs to monitor for marine mammals, an expanded marine mammal safety zone, and ramping up sound to give animals a chance to escape.

“The courts have found time and again that the Navy, as a federal agency, must follow the laws that Congress has enacted to protect our environment, including humpback whales and other threatened and endangered species. The Navy’s latest response to the state’s conditions is another example of the Navy’s unwillingness to uphold its obligations as a federal agency,” said Marti Townsend of KAHEA.

The conditions the Hawai’i Coastal Zone Management Program imposed are authorized by the federal Coastal Zone Management Act, which requires the Navy to comply with state laws that protect coastal resources, like marine mammals, and coastal uses, like whale watching. In addition, the Endangered Species Act allows states to enact laws that are more protective of threatened and endangered species than federal law.

Navy mid-frequency active sonar has been implicated in whale mass strandings in, among other places, the Bahamas (2000), Greece (1996), Madeira (2000), the Canary Islands (2002), and Spain (2006). In 2004, the sonar was implicated in a mass stranding of up to 200 melon-headed whales in Hanalei Bay, after which a whale calf died.

“The Navy claims to be a steward of the environment yet it continually refuses to adopt any meaningful protections that will prevent its sonar from causing known harms to marine mammals. The Navy has wasted an opportunity to work cooperatively with the state in protecting coastal resources,” said Dr. Marsha Green of the Ocean Mammal Institute. 

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