Whale Killed During Navy Sonar Exercises

Exercises in Hawai`i's waters, included use of high-intensity, mid-frequency active sonar


Paul Achitoff, Earthjustice, (808) 599-2436
Marsha Green, Ocean Mammal Institute, (207) 967-2759

A Cuvier’s beaked whale stranded and later died on Moloka`i’s southeast shore yesterday as the Navy conducted its multi-national Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercise in Hawai`i’s waters, including use of high-intensity, mid-frequency active sonar. Earlier this year, federal district judge David A. Ezra agreed with Ocean Mammal Institute, the Animal Welfare Institute, KAHEA: The Hawaiian-Environmental Alliance, the Center for Biological Diversity, and the Surfrider Foundation’s Kaua’i Chapter, represented by Earthjustice, that the Navy had been violating federal environmental laws and that the Navy’s "protective measures" for its undersea warfare exercises using sonar do not adequately protect whales. Judge Ezra ordered the Navy to add additional measures to reduce the potential to injure or kill marine mammals. The court’s injunction did not specifically apply to the RIMPAC exercises, however.

The State Coastal Zone Management Program, in addition to requiring these court-ordered protective measures, went a step further and banned mid-frequency sonar noise over 145 dB in the state’s coastal zone, including during RIMPAC. The Navy refused to comply. "Instead of applying meaningful protections, the Navy insisted on relying on the same measures that courts in Hawai`i and California have found ‘woefully inadequate,’" said Marti Townsend of KAHEA. "They have completely ignored the law that authorizes the State to protect Hawai`i’s coastal resources with such restrictions."

"The Navy flat-out refused to apply to RIMPAC the protections that both the federal court and the State believed would better protect Hawai`i’s marine mammals," said the Ocean Mammal Institute’s Marsha Green. "The death of the beaked whale yesterday may well be a result of the Navy’s actions."

Deep-diving beaked whales have come into the international spotlight as mass strandings around the world have regularly been linked to naval mid-frequency active sonar use. Other deep diving whales, like pygmy sperm whales and pilot whales, have been similarly affected. Notably, naval sonar has been implicated in mass strandings of marine mammals in, among other places, the Bahamas (2000), Greece (1996), Madeira (2000), the Canary Islands (2002), and Spain (2006). In 2004, during RIMPAC exercises, the Navy’s sonar was implicated in a mass stranding of up to 200 melon-headed whales in Hanalei Bay, after which a whale calf died.

"Cuvier’s beaked whales appear to be particularly susceptible to harm from mid-frequency active sonar," said whale expert Dr. Robin Baird of Cascadia Research. "They may dive deeper and for longer periods than any other species and loud sonar is thought to interrupt their natural diving behavior. The exact mechanism of harm is not known, but whales stranded in association with naval exercises have exhibited gas bubble lesions, somewhat similar to the bends that human divers experience when they rise too quickly from a long dive." According to the National Marine Fisheries Service’s 2007 Biological Opinion evaluating the Navy’s sonar exercises, some 81 percent of the whales known to have been involved in sonar-associated stranding events have been Cuvier’s beaked whales. Exposure to sonar blasts, which may reach 235 decibels and can be heard for miles underwater, can also cause serious injury or death caused by trauma to acoustic organs, temporary and permanent hearing loss, displacement from preferred habitat, and disruption of feeding, breeding, nursing, communication, sensing and other behaviors essential to survival. 

Following each of two undersea warfare exercises using mid-frequency sonar in Hawai`i’s waters in April 2007, dead pygmy sperms whales washed up on Maui county beaches, one carrying a full-term fetus. In February 2008, a female northern right whale dolphin washed up on a Southern California beach as the Navy was completing its sonar exercises nearby. A dissection of the dolphin’s head revealed blood and other fluid in its ears and ear canals. The same symptoms were found in deep-diving whales that washed ashore in the Canary Islands and the Bahamas after military sonar exercises. 

The Navy routinely denies responsibility for such incidents. Earthjustice attorney Paul Achitoff, who has been litigating the case before Judge Ezra, said "The Navy’s refusal to acknowledge the role it has been playing in causing the deaths of marine mammals around the world, its refusal to follow the findings of every court that has considered these issues, and its refusal to comply with the restrictions lawfully required by Hawai’i’s Coastal Zone Management Program, are tragic."

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