Whales & Dolphins: Lawsuit Seeks to Reduce Harm from Navy Sonar in Pacific

Millions of marine mammals face injury, death off Hawaiʻi, Southern California


David Henkin, Earthjustice, (808) 599-2436, ext. 6614


Marjorie Ziegler, Conservation Council for Hawaiʻi, (808) 593-0255


Susan Millward, Animal Welfare Institute, (202) 337-2332


Miyoko Sakashita, Center for Biological Diversity, (415) 632-5308


Marsha Green, Ocean Mammal Institute, (610) 670-7386

A lawsuit filed in Hawaiʻi federal court today challenges the National Marine Fisheries Service’s approval of a 5-year plan by the U.S. Navy for testing and training activities off Hawaiʻi and Southern California. The Navy and Fisheries Service estimate this training will cause 9.6 million instances of harm to whales, dolphins and other marine mammals. The operations will include active sonar and explosives, which are known to cause permanent injuries and deaths to marine mammals.

Ocean mammals depend on hearing for navigation, feeding, and reproduction. Scientists have linked military sonar and live-fire activities to mass whale beaching, exploded eardrums, and even death. In 2004, during war games near Hawaiʻi, the Navy’s sonar was implicated in a mass stranding of up to 200 melon-headed whales in Hanalei Bay, Kaua‘i.

The Navy and Fisheries Service estimate that, over the plan’s five-year period, training and testing activities will result in thousands of animals suffering permanent hearing loss, lung injuries or death. Millions of animals will be exposed to temporary injuries and disturbances, with many subjected to multiple harmful exposures.

Earthjustice represents Conservation Council for Hawaiʻi, the Animal Welfare Institute, Center for Biological Diversity and Ocean Mammal Institute in this matter.

The National Environmental Policy Act requires that a range of alternatives be considered, including alternatives that could be pursued with less environmental harm, and that the public have an opportunity to review and comment on that analysis. The groups have gone to court because the Fisheries Service approved the Navy’s plan without evaluating any alternatives that would place biologically important areas off-limits to training and testing.

“Live-fire and ocean sonar training harms critically endangered marine mammals like Hawaiʻi’s insular false killer whales, which number only about 150 individuals and rely heavily on their acute sense of hearing to survive,” said David Henkin of Earthjustice. “When federally protected species are on the line, the law requires the Fisheries Service to take a hard look at ways to avoid harming them and to involve the public in examining alternative courses of action.”

“Some of the marine mammals threatened by Navy activities are already on the brink of extinction, such as the Hawaiian monk seal, our state mammal and one of the world’s most endangered species. The Fisheries Service has determined that Hawaiian monk seals in the main Hawaiian Islands are essential to the species’ survival. Under the plan it just approved, however, each one of these seals will be harmed by sonar an average of 10 times a year,” said Conservation Council for Hawaiʻi’s Marjorie Ziegler. “If we can save even a few seals through better planning, we must. Much of this harm can be avoided and mitigated, if only the Fisheries Service would require it.”

“The whales and dolphins who wind up in the middle of the war games don’t stand a chance against the Navy. This proposal increases the predicted harm to marine mammals by more than 10 times. The Fisheries Service needs to do better to protect our oceans by preventing harm to the animals that call those oceans home,” said Miyoko Sakashita, Oceans Director at the Center for Biological Diversity.

“The lawsuit is not asking to stop the Navy from training,” explained Susan Millward, Executive Director of Animal Welfare Institute. “Rather, we are asking our government to take the required ‘hard look’ before inflicting this much harm on vulnerable marine mammals populations and to consider alternatives that would allow the Navy to achieve its goals with less damage. For taxpayer-funded activities at this scale, citizen oversight often helps create a better plan.”

“The science is clear: sonar and live-fire training in the ocean harms marine mammals,” said Dr. Marsha Green, Ocean Mammal Institute’s president. “There are safer ways to conduct Navy exercises that include time and place restrictions to avoid areas known to be vital for marine mammals’ feeding, breeding and resting. With a little advanced planning and precaution, the Navy can conduct training and protect marine species in the Pacific Ocean.”

Read the complaint.

Additional Resources

Watch a video shot by the Center for Whale Research in Washington State. Hear what Navy sonar sounds like and see what it does to marine mammals (in the video, orcas) at earthjustice.org/sonar.

Additional Resources

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