What's Next for Whales in Hawai`i?

Bush's Navy sonar waiver in California raises concerns


Paul Achtoff, Earthjustice, (808) 599-2436

As the U.S. Navy resumes mid-frequency sonar training off the coast of Southern California operating under a waiver by the Bush administration, conservation groups in Hawai`i fear Hawai’i’s whales may be next.

A similar challenge to mid-frequency sonar training is currently making its way through the courts in Hawai`i. In May 2007, Earthjustice filed a suit with facts similar to the California situation, on behalf of Ocean Mammal Institute, the Animal Welfare Institute, KAHEA, the Center for Biological Diversity, and Surfrider Foundation, Kaua’i chapter. The Navy has announced plans to use the sonar in up to twelve Undersea Warfare Exercises in Hawai’i’s waters, including within the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary and near the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. 

That case is currently before Judge David A. Ezra in Honolulu federal district court. Judge Ezra will hear the plaintiffs’ motion for a preliminary injunction on February 11.

"The Bush administration’s attempt to override a federal court in California is certainly a disturbing turn of events not just for whales, but also for constitutional balance of power," said Paul Achitoff, attorney for Earthjustice Hawai`i. "As a government agency, the Navy should be setting an example. Protecting the nation includes following its laws, not tossing them overboard when they’re inconvenient.  It includes protecting our irreplaceable natural legacy."

The lawsuit challenging the Navy’s sonar exercises in Hawai’i notes that other modern navys, such as Australia’s, have grappled with the same problem and found solutions less harmful to whales, including reasonable shut-down zones; avoiding sensitive marine mammal habitats, particularly during seasons of high whale density (like the endangered humpback whale’s calving season from November through May in Hawai’i); and reducing power in low visibility conditions. 

It is now undisputed that whale mass strandings and deaths around the world have been  associated with blasts of the military’s high-intensity, mid-frequency active sonar.  In addition to direct damage, panicked, deep-diving whales have reacted by rushing to the surface too quickly and suffering fatal cases of "the bends."

Bush Attempts Waiver for Sonar in California

On January 15, President Bush attempted to exempt the Navy from a court decision that, after careful review of the science, allowed the military to use sonar in anti-submarine training off California, but made it subject to conditions designed to reduce unnecessary impacts to marine mammals. In an effort to eliminate all mitigation to which the Navy objected, President Bush purported to waive the Coastal Zone Management Act and the National Environmental Policy Act. The state of California, representing the California Coastal Commission, and environmental groups have challenged President Bush’s action as contrary to the environmental laws and the Constitution’s separation of powers doctrine.

Watch this video to see how sonar testing affects marine mammals:

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