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Navy Sonar Training To Take Place Off Coast Of Hawaii

June 27, 2008

The U.S. Navy has adopted a new plan Thursday to train in waters near Hawaii. The plan would allow for more frequent exercises while limiting the potentially harmful effects of its sonar on marine mammals.

The plan was created following completion of environmental studies that found the exercises were in compliance with federal law. Similar studies are being conducted for training in waters off the coast of the Pacific Northwest, California and elsewhere.

According to environmentalists, active sonar can hurt or kill whales and other marine mammals. However, the Navy says it takes steps to protect the mammals from its sonar, or bounced sound waves.

The Navy’s Hawaii plan keeps in place critical training elements allowing for a series of undersea warfare exercises that train sailors to use sonar to locate submarines. Rim of the Pacific international maritime drills, which the Navy conducts off the Hawaiian coast every two years, will also be permitted to continue.

B.J. Penn, the Navy’s assistant secretary for installations and environment, said the new plan provides sailors with the skills they need for combat effectiveness.

“The Navy must train its deploying forces in the most realistic manner possible,” Penn said in a statement.

Sailors will be expected to use both high-frequency and mid-frequency sonar for the same number of hours as they currently do. The Navy said it would adhere to a series of 29 measures that would protect marine mammals from harm, such as posting trained lookouts on ships and turning off active sonar when a marine mammal comes within 600 feet of the sonar source.

But the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco ruled the measures insufficient. The Navy has appealed, and will now argue its case before the U.S. Supreme Court. 

In a report announcing the new training plan, Penn wrote that the Navy would collaborate with the state of Hawaii to identify other protection measures that might be “feasible and practicable.”

Although no marine mammals were expected to be killed or injured as a result of sonar exposure, the animals might be affected in other ways, the report said. For example, upon hearing the sonar a whale might change its course to evade the sound.

It is not clear what effect the plan may have on a separate dispute between the state of Hawaii and the Navy about whether the state has the authority to restrict the use of sonar during training exercises. The issue emerged after the state’s Coastal Zone Management Agency asked the Navy to adopt a federal judge’s rules on the use of sonar for all of its exercises in Hawaiian waters. While the judge only imposed his rules on undersea warfare exercises through January, the Navy is disputing whether the state has jurisdiction in the matter.

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