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Navy, Environmentalists Await Sonar Ruling

Hundreds of whales swim near the beach in Hanalei Bay, Hawaii, in summer 2004. There is growing concern among environmentalists and scientists that sonar training conducted by the Navy is harming whales and other sea life.
Hundreds of whales swim near the beach in Hanalei Bay, Hawaii, in summer 2004. There is growing concern among environmentalists and scientists that sonar training conducted by the Navy is harming whales and other sea life. (By Dennis Fujimoto -- Associated Press)

The California standoff began in late 2006, when the Navy announced it would conduct 14 training operations off Southern California between early 2007 and early 2009. The exercises would involve extensive use of mid-frequency active sonar and typically would last two weeks or more. Under the Navy plan, the sonar would be used throughout thousands of square miles of ocean and would be permitted near Channel Islands National Park off Santa Barbara.

The Navy sent its plans to the state coastal commission for review but excluded any mention of the sonar, saying it would have no impact on the coast. The commission disagreed and proposed a dozen steps for the Navy to take to protect marine mammals. The Navy responded by obtaining from the deputy secretary of defense a formal exemption from the Marine Mammal Protection Act -- the law that most explicitly limits actions potentially harmful to whales and other sea mammals.

The Navy's exemption, however, did not have the intended effect. Environmental groups sued in March, and in late summer the judge issued a temporary restraining order against the Navy, which she said had not complied with other federal environmental laws.

In her decision, Cooper highlighted the Navy's estimate that the exercises would temporarily disrupt or harm 170,000 marine mammals, and would permanently injure more than 400.

Cooper's preliminary injunction was appealed by the Navy, which won the first round. But a second panel of three judges ruled in November that the Navy had not followed required environmental laws, and sent the case back to Cooper with orders to craft a "narrowly tailored" plan by Jan. 4 to meet legal requirements.

The Navy is particularly concerned about the outcome of the case because it wants to build a similar sonar training range off North Carolina. Many environmental groups oppose that plan, as do some key elected officials.

The Navy believes additional active sonar training is essential. Officials base their sense of urgency on a perceived threat coming from smaller diesel submarines that cannot be detected with passive sonar. At least 41 nations have this type of submarine, Locklear said, and others are working on it.

The California dispute centers on where and when the Navy will be able to use its sonar during "integrated training," which Locklear said is where sailors are prepared for war. He said the Navy must have the full underwater range to properly train sonar operators to find hidden subs, but environmentalists and the coastal commission want the range restricted.

For instance, they argue that no sonar should be allowed around Cortes and Tanner banks, two underwater plateaus southwest of San Clemente Island that are home to endangered fin whales and blue whales. In addition, they want a 1 1/4 -mile "safety zone" established with no sonar allowed whenever a marine mammal is located. The Navy has proposed a safety zone of about two-thirds of a mile.

"We really don't understand why the Navy won't accept conditions that it accepted or imposed on itself during other exercises," said council lawyer Reynolds. "The state agency responsible for protecting the California coast established 12 conditions for the exercises, but the Navy took a hard line and basically said no to them all. This tells me the Navy wants to make a point here."

Rear Adm. Lawrence Rice, the Navy's director for environmental readiness, said that given the number of whales and other marine mammals killed by ship strikes, fishing nets and loud sounds from sources including oil and gas exploration, he doesn't understand "why the sonar has become such a big deal."

"Frankly, we're doing a tremendous job as environmental stewards around the world, and I just don't see any significant impact from sonar on whales," he said. The Navy will increase its budget for marine mammal research this year to $18 million, which Rice said is half the total research money spent in the field worldwide.


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