Battle lines drawn over use of sonar

With Rim of the Pacific naval exercises scheduled to happen in June and July in waters off the U.S. Navy Pacific Missile Range Facility at Barking Sands near Kekaha, battle lines are being drawn over whether or not use of sonar during these exercises harms ocean life.

The U.S. Navy’s use of sonar during maritime exercises may have contributed to the mass stranding of more than 150 whales in Hanalei Bay two years ago, government scientists said last week.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientists said this conclusion, along with information from other studies, has led them to ask Navy leaders to adjust how they use sonar during similar exercises planned for this summer.

Navy officers plan to comply with NOAA scientists’ request to adjust their use of sonar equipment during this year’s military maneuvers, although they contend the report did not conclusively show sonar triggered the 2004 stranding.

Locally, opponents of use of the sonar system want a full banning of the use of sonar technology during the war games, they said.

The Navy’s planned use of sonar for the Rim of the Pacific War Games scheduled in late June and July and NOAA’s approval of its plans to use the technology should be denied, said Margaret Wright, a Kaua‘i-based critic of the Navy plan.

Sonar equipment on military ships is scheduled to be used during the exercises in waters north of Kaua‘i.

Anything less than the full ban will result in setting up the “same set of conditions associated with the 2004 stranding” of the melon-headed whales, said Wright, a member of the Hanalei Canoe Club.

Club leaders established the Melon Head Project after the stranding, to raise public awareness about the need to end the Navy’s use of sonar during exercises in Hawaiian waters, Wright told The Garden Island.

“The Navy had two years to do an environmental impact (study), and the Navy didn’t do anything,” she said.

Although a calf died in the 2004 stranding, community residents successfully herded the remainder of the pod of whales back out to sea from Hanalei Bay, Wright said.

“Sonar testing is blatantly harmful, and the Navy isn’t thinking about where they are testing,” she said.

In response, Lt. Cmdr. Christy Hagen, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Pacific Fleet, told The Garden Island the Navy has shown it has been a good steward of the ocean, having spent more than $10 million yearly for marine mammal research.

“We care about the environment,” Hagen said in a brief interview from her office in Honolulu. “We know we need to balance our need to protect the country with our need to protect the environment.”

For this upcoming military exercise, the Navy will take mitigative measures in the use of sonar so as not to hurt or kill marine mammals, she said.

Those measures include having sailors continually monitor the seas for marine mammals during the training, having the Navy reduce the sonar power when a mammal is within 1,000 meters of a ship, and the Navy monitoring areas within 25 kilometers of the islands where ships travel, Hagen said.

In addition, the Navy is hiring researchers to conduct aerial surveys for marine mammals, Hagen said.

Related to the impact of sonar on the whales two years ago, Brandon Southall, director of NOAA’s acoustics program, said officials were unable to find other reasons, weather-related or otherwise, that may have caused the melon-headed whales, named because of the bulge in their foreheads, to swim en masse into the shallow waters of Hanalei Bay on July 3, 2004.

But officials also lacked evidence to definitively say sonar caused the incident, he said.

“It’s possible this was one of what may have been a number of contributing factors,” Southall told reporters in a conference call. “It’s plausible.”

Nearby predators or other factors may have also contributed to the incident, NOAA said in its report on the stranding released Thursday.

The Navy uses sonar technology, which bounces sound waves off underwater objects to map underwater geography, to detect threats, and to navigate.

But some wildlife advocates believe the sound waves hurt whales, possibly by damaging their hearing or causing them to rise to the surface too quickly and get decompression sickness.

The Navy was holding its biennial Rim of the Pacific maritime exercises off Hawai‘i at the time of the incident two years ago.

More than 40 ships, seven submarines, 100 aircraft and some 18,000 troops from eight countries converged on the Hawaiian islands for the month-long series of drills.

The day before the whales entered Hanalei Bay, a group of six U.S. and Japanese vessels steamed north from O‘ahu toward Kaua‘i, using active sonar signals intermittently along the way.

NOAA’s study concluded the whales may have heard these signals and headed into shallow waters as a result.

All the whales, except for one calf, left the bay after about 28 hours, with the guidance of volunteers on canoes, kayaks and surfboards.

A necropsy of the calf, which was later found dead, showed the mammal likely died of malnutrition, dehydration, and stress related to the stranding. The necropsy found no sign the whale suffered trauma due to loud sounds, NOAA said.

The Navy downplayed the inferences that could be read from the report.

“There are data limitations, and the report is inconclusive,” said Hagen. “There are so many unknown factors that you cannot come to any definitive conclusion at this point.”

Lt. William Marks, a Navy spokesman at the Pentagon, said the six-hour gap between the last use of sonar and the arrival of the whales in the bay made it unlikely sonar triggered the stranding.

But environmentalists said the report clearly blamed sonar.

“It adds to a long and growing list of strandings that have been associated with the Navy’s use of sonar,” said Michael Jasny, a senior consultant with the Natural Resources Defense Council in Los Angeles.

“Together it paints a picture of a global problem,” he said, citing other mass strandings in the Canary Islands, Alaska and Japan.

In light of the Hanalei incident and strandings in the Bahamas and elsewhere, NOAA said it has asked the Navy to reduce its sonar’s power during this summer’s Rim of the Pacific exercises when its ships detect marine mammals nearby.

The agency also asked the Navy to turn off its active sonar when the animals come within a set distance.

Donna Wieting, deputy director for the office of protected resources at NOAA’s Fisheries Service, said she was confident these steps would minimize the impact of the exercises on marine mammals.

She said she believed sonar would likely only prompt “temporary behavior modifications” in the animals during the drills.

But Jasny said the measures would fail to prevent strandings because the Navy would be allowed to use the same sonar in the same places as in 2004.

“We need to come together as a community to set a precedent for restrictions on future Navy antisubmarine warfare training this summer,” Wright said.

She urged residents to voice their objections to the Navy proposal in submittals to Steve Leathery, chief of the Permits and Conservation and Education Division Office of Protected Resources of the National Marine Fisheries Service of NOAA.

The federal agency is taking public comments on the Navy’s proposal until May 22.

Hagen said the Navy also welcomes the comments. “We encourage public review and comment on our incidental-harassment authorization (request to NOAA) for RIMPAC,” she said.

The Navy is seeking authorization to use the sonar for its military training exercise for the first time.

The Navy’s request comes in response to a lawsuit filed by the Natural Resources Defense Council that challenges the Navy’s use of sonar for the RIMPAC exercises, Wright said.

The council, a nonprofit environmental organization, has contended the Navy’s use of mid-frequency active sonar can kill or injure marine mammals.

Hagen said the Navy’s request is tied more to the “evolving science” of sonar technology, “and because of the emerging technologies, capabilities to study it, it is the first time we have been able to quantify the effects of the sonar on marine animals.”

Hagen said the Navy “routinely operates sonar with no identified impact on marine life in a dynamic ocean environment with a focus on environmental safety.”

The Rim of the Pacific exercises, also known as RIMPAC, have been held off Hawai‘i 19 times since 1968. The incident two years ago marked the first time whale strandings were noticed during the drills.

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