Environmental groups: Extend protections against Naval sonar, explosives

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KAILUA-KONA — The U.S. Navy is asking the public to weigh in on how it can tailor its training exercises to better protect whales and other marine life from harm.

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KAILUA-KONA — The U.S. Navy is asking the public to weigh in on how it can tailor its training exercises to better protect whales and other marine life from harm.

A settlement with environmental groups in September limits naval exercises in Hawaii waters and puts some protections in place to protect marine animals from damaging sonar and the use of explosives. The settlement was the culmination of a long and contentious battle over the effects of Navy training on ocean ecosystems — but it only covers out to 2018.

Now, the Navy has agreed to create a new environmental impact statement for exercises beyond 2018 in Hawaii and California waters. As part of the scoping leading up to the preparation of the document, the military is seeking comment on what it should consider. The public has until Jan. 12 to make its voice heard.

“The Navy doesn’t need to blow up breeding areas or blast migrating whales with sonar, so we’re glad they’re taking a closer look at this critical issue,” said Miyoko Sakashita, oceans program director for the Center for Biological Diversity. “The Navy doesn’t need continuous access to every square inch of the Pacific. It’s a big ocean, and we need protections for the areas that are particularly important for whales and dolphins.”

The Navy has agreed to alter its current five-year training plan so that its vessels must use extreme caution in humpback whale habitat areas and travel at speeds that will minimize strikes. Vessels must stay 500 yard from whales and 200 yards from other marine mammals. The Navy is prohibited from using med-frequency active sonar and in-water explosives during training off East Hawaii. The agreement protects endangered monk seals and false killer whale populations, along with Cuviers beaked whales.

In waters off West Hawaii, the Navy may no longer use in-water explosives for training, and can only use the sonar during one Rim of the Pacific Exercise in 2016, one in 2018, and during five other warfare exercises each year.

Dave Henkin, an attorney with Earthjustice in Hawaii, said the Navy has historically staged around nine major training exercises around Hawaii Island annually, most of them on the west side. The number of exercises in which mid-frequency sonar can be used has been reduced to four or five, plus RIMPAC, which takes place every other year, he said. The settlement also prohibits use of sonar in single-vessel training in nearly all waters around Hawaii Island, Henkin said.

Sakashita said current protections need to be extended indefinitely.

“In the next set of testing and training currently being considered, we believe that it will be necessary to maintain these protections for marine mammals because there are biologically important areas off the Big Island,” Sakashita said.

Henkin said the Navy should develop “alternatives to business as usual that ensure protection of those vital areas from sonar, explosives and other destructive activities.”

“It was the Navy’s failure to do so during the last five-year permitting process that landed it in court last time,” Henkin said. “Let’s hope the Navy learns from its mistakes.”

It is not clear whether the Navy will seek to return to pre-settlement use of explosives and sonar after 2018. Lt. Cmdr. Matt Knight, U.S. Pacific Fleet spokesman, said the limitations were agreed upon based on the possibility the court would have stopped “critically important training and testing.”

“The Navy does intend to evaluate all potential mitigations to determine those which are reasonable, operationally feasible and provide practical benefits to marine species,” Knight said in an email. “This analysis will include ongoing mitigations, including the settlement restrictions and limitations … The Navy needs to continue to test and train in diverse environments, many of which replicate real world operating areas. It is essential to military readiness that we maintain this flexibility.”

Long a point of contention, military sonar and live fire training has been linked to lung injuries and deafness in marine mammals and massive whale beachings — and may have been the cause of the stranding of 200 melon-headed whales on Kauai in 2004.

Written comments can be addressed to:

Naval Facilities Engineering Command, Pacific

Attention: HSTT EIS/OEIS Project Manager

258 Makalapa Drive, Suite 100

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Pearl Harbor, HI 96860-3134

Info: http://hstteis.com/Home.aspx

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