Conservation groups sue over sonar

Published On: Dec 16 2013 10:48:00 PM HST

How much harm should the Navy be allowed to do to marine life through sonar and live-fire testing? That is a question conservation groups hope will be answered in federal court, after filing a lawsuit over a plan by the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Click here to watch Paul Drewes' report.

In recently released regulations, the Navy would be permitted to perform 60,000 hours of sonar testing and detonate 34,000 explosives in waters around Hawaii and Southern California.
Several conservation groups worry how all of that will affect thousands of marine mammals, like the humpback whales that visit the islands every winter.

Underwater the whales rely on their hearing.

"These mammals have very acute hearing. They use it to find food, to be aware of predators, and to mate," said David Henkin, with Earthjustice.

Humpback whales perform a particular song while they are in Hawaii's waters, but some fear more than just those songs will be interrupted by the sounds of sonar and explosions.

"When you deafen them through loud blasts of sonar, you can cause damage to those animals and destroy their hearing," said Henkin.

The federal government's new regulations state they, "aim to minimize the effects of Navy training on marine mammals." They include required reductions in sound levels whenever a whale or dolphin is spotted.
The regulations would still allow endangered species like Hawaiian monk seals and Hawaii's false killer whale populations to be harrassed by sonar training hundreds, even thousands of times a year.

"The same fisheries service just listed Hawaii's false killer whales as endangered, we are down to 150 of them, they are going to be subjected to this Navy training if we don't set aside a few protected areas where they can rest, feed, and survive," said Henkin.

The Navy is not a party in the current lawsuit, but issued a statement stating, "Sailors need to train in realistic conditions with equipment that has been tested under realistic conditions before they deploy into harm's way. The Navy has been training and testing for 60 years without evidence of major impacts on marine life."

On Monday evening, Tony Mathis and his crew were getting their boat the Mazel Tov ready for another day of fishing. During his time on the water, Mathis has seen the effect on wildlife from the Navy's sonar testing.

"As a fisherman I've seen an impact. The bite drops, it's virtually non-existent when you have subs and ships out there operating," said Mathis.

Other sailors said they are also concerned about the long-term effects of sonar on marine mammals and worry we may not be able to see the true impact, as animals that die rarely wash up on our shores.

Most agree though with Capt. Tony that some Navy training is important.

"I understand the necessity of what they are doing. Our freedom has a price," said Mathis.

"All that we've been asking is for the Navy to take a look at alternatives that would allow it to do its mission at a much less cost to these mammals," said Henkin.

The groups suing the government hope to set aside areas already designed as "Biologically important to marine mammals" by the federal government, like the leeward side of the Big Island as off-limits to sonar or explosive testing.


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