Sonar settlement, continuing research welcome

That the Navy agreed earlier this month to limit its use of sonar and other training that harms whales, dolphins and marine mammals off Hawaii and California is good. It’s a recognition that there is a problem with these activities and they can’t continue to be carried out as frequently as they have in years past without marine life paying a price.

The settlement includes limits or bans on mid-frequency active sonar and explosives. There will still be some training. The Navy needs to be able to carry out exercises so it can be prepared if it needs to take military action.

So what’s the problem with sonar?

Environmental groups involved in the agreement say sonar can disrupt feeding and communication of marine mammals, and it can cause deafness or death at a closer distance. By its own estimates, the Navy says its use of sonar and explosives during training exercises inadvertently kill hundreds of whales and dolphins and injure thousands off Hawaii and Southern California.

In Hawaii, the deal prohibits sonar and explosives training on the eastern side of the Big Island and north of Molokai and Maui. The groups said that will protect Hawaiian monk seals and small populations of toothed whales, including the endangered false killer whale.

Bottom line, reducing sonar use will reduce the number of casualties. This settlement is a step in the right direction.

The Navy also recently announced it is funding a project between Kauai and Niihau — where the Navy operates a mid-frequency active sonar range — in an effort to learn more about the effects of sonar on whales and dolphins. It’s good they want to learn more and we applaud their efforts. Cascadia Research Collective, an independent nonprofit, is leading the field project, which began Sept. 3. It is Cascadia’s 13th field project, and the second this year, aimed at understanding how sonar is influencing marine mammals in the waters off Kauai’s Westside.

This, the Navy said, is nothing new. Lt. Cmdr. Matt Knight, a U.S. Pacific Fleet spokesman, said in the last five years the Navy has committed $160 million to research the relationship between marine mammals and underwater noise. We would like to see the results of what that research has found so far.

While it’s encouraging and welcome that the Navy is paying someone to study of the effects of sonar, some might argue that because the Navy is paying the bill, it seems likely the results will find that sonar probably doesn’t effect whales and dolphins, or if it does, it won’t be much. It’s just natural for people to believe that whatever organization or agency is paying for a study, they will expect it to produce the results that would be beneficial to that agency.

For instance, Coca-Cola recently provided money and support to a new nonprofit, the Global Energy Balance Network. And this network, not too surprisingly, found that in its “science-based solution” it’s not sugary drinks that are the causes of obesity in this country. The real culprit is that folks don’t exercise enough, according to the network. That would very well be true. But then again, it seems awfully convenient that a solution backed by a beverage company found drinking sugary soda isn’t really bad for us as long as we exercise.

We’re not saying that’s the case with the Navy funding this sonar research, but the perception remains. There really is no way to conduct such a study without involving the Navy. And they should receive credit for studying the issue, rather than dismissing claims about the negative effects of sonar on marine life.

What we do know is this: There are compromises that can be reached that protect the military and still safeguard whales and dolphins. This is one such compromise and we look forward to even more safeguards for the creatures in our oceans.

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