War exercises on the horizon

HONOLULU — Starting Thursday, 26 nations with 45 ships, five submarines, more than 200 aircraft and 25,000 personnel will be practicing war in and around the Hawaiian Islands as they engage in the biennial Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercise.

But several organizations and individuals on Kauai are concerned about the Navy’s use of sonar and its effect on the marine life, and have formed a coalition with the singular goal of halting the war exercises.

The five-week event is expected to bring at least $50 million in direct economic benefits to the state of Hawaii, “with tens of millions of dollars more of indirect benefits” according to Rochelle Rieger, public affairs action officer commander, U.S. Third Fleet.

She said some of that money will land on Kauai, and not just because of operations at Pacific Missile Range Facility, which will “be seeing some increased activity” because various training exercises will be conducted off-shore.

“We also expect some of the 25,000 participants to want to visit the Garden Island,” Rieger said. “Many will come back in years to come with families and friends.”

She said the Hawaiian Islands are used as the site for the war exercises because “the Hawaii operating area and ranges offer a realistic, relevant training opportunity like nowhere else in the world.”

“Of course the really long-term benefits of RIMPAC is building cooperation, security and stability in the Pacific with all participants,” Rieger said.

This year’s RIMPAC, with its theme of “Capable, Adaptive, Partners,” will be the world’s largest international maritime exercise and it includes forces from Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Colombia, France, India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, People’s Republic of China, Peru, the Republic of Korea, the Republic of the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Tonga, the United Kingdom and the United States.

New to RIMPAC this year are Germany, Denmark and Italy, and another new addition will be amphibious operations in the Southern California operating area. Those operations will feature a harpoon missile shot from a U.S. Navy littoral combat ship.

Will Kauai see RIMPAC?

Rieger said there won’t be any exercises visible from Kauai’s shores and most of the traffic from RIMPAC 2016 will be in and around Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam on Oahu, but there could be some excess noise on the Westside as a result of the exercise.

“Kauai residents, especially on the Westside, can expect some noise temporarily in certain areas, including in the evening,” Rieger said. “The intention is to have no flights past 10 p.m. and to keep community disturbances at a minimum.”

Kauai’s sailors stationed at PMRF will be part of the exercise, but they won’t be doing any daily work that’s out of the ordinary.

“They will be conducting their normal day-to-day responsibilities and will be working with units participating in RIMPAC,” Rieger explained. “RIMPAC leadership values the support from all sailors involved in the exercise, including those stationed at PMRF.”

Environmental concerns

Surfrider Foundation, Kohola Leo, Sierra Club, Code Pink, Kauai Alliance for Peace and Justice, and Reef Guardians Hawaii have teamed up with about 20 individuals to form the Oceans 4 Peace Coalition with the plan to spread education and awareness about RIMPAC and the negative impacts of sonar on sea life.

“Noise in the ocean is a big problem for all the marine mammals,” said Gordon LaBedz, spokesman for Oceans 4 Peace. “Sonar is the worst and that’s why we’re so upset about RIMPAC. It’s that earsplitting blasting that can cause brain bleeding in whales.”

Active sonar pulses sound waves at 230-240 decibels (dB). In comparison, a normal conversation usually happens at 60-65 dB, a motorcycle will rev up to about 100 dB and a jet engine at 100 feet is 140 dB.

In March 2015, the U.S. District Court, District of Hawaii found that the U.S. Navy’s training and testing activities off the coast of Hawaii and Southern California illegally harmed more than 60 whale, dolphin, seal and sea lion populations.

Kalasar Setaysha, marine biologist with Kohola Leo, said those loud, low frequencies can also interfere with the echolocation detection systems on animals like dolphins, but there are many other effects of sonar on sea life. The potential harms include hearing loss, habitat abandonment and death.

“Sometimes they beach themselves to get away from the sound,” Setaysha said.

LaBedz explained that Hawaii is home to around 20 different cetacean species, not just the humpback whales that cruise down from Alaska to have their calves.

“Most of them are further out so people don’t see them, but they’re here,” Setaysha said. “The deep sea diving whales, the melon-headed whale, and the pilot and sperm whales are more susceptible to sonar because they’re more sensitive.”

Katherine Muzik, Kauai marine biologist whose expertise lies in studying the coral reefs, said it’s important to remember it’s not just the marine mammals that are affected.

“We know that whales are harmed,” Muzik said. “The evidence for other life, whether corals or turtles, is scanty because no one in the lab has enough money to mimic Navy sonar, but sound is so important — especially in the deep, dark.”

She pointed out that corals are animals, with complex and extremely sensitive nervous systems. Baby planulae use cilia on their bodies to move through the water and actually choose the smooth, hard surface where they attach and grow into a full colony.

“They’re extremely sensitive when they’re babies, and as they grow,” Muzik said. “And turtles, their shells just turn into giant magnifiers for the sonar that funnel it straight through them.”

Rieger said the U.S. Navy takes environmental stewardship very seriously, however, and prior to the RIMPAC exercise members of crews “receive training on sighting marine mammals and require protective measures.”

“We employ appropriate protective measures in accordance with the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act,” Rieger said. “Employment of these measures minimizes the potential for affecting protected marine species whenever active sonar or explosives are being used.”

She said some of those measures are posting extensively trained lookouts, monitoring for marine mammals in the area before and during sonar transmissions or explosives use, establishing safety and exclusion zones and reducing or ceasing sonar transmissions when marine mammals are detected within certain distances.

The Oceans 4 Peace Coalition has been hosting a series of films and informational discussions. Upcoming events include:

• Friday, July 1, 6:30 p.m. at the Koloa Neighborhood Center:

“Why We Fight,” a film about the U.S. military.

Discussion with Rick Cooper.

• Saturday, July 9, 1 p.m. at the Hanapepe Library:

“Oceans,” Disney documentary film about the ocean.

Discussion with Gordon LaBedz.

• Sunday, July 10, 1 p.m. at the Kapaa Neighborhood Center:

“Why We Fight,” a film about the U.S. military.

Discussion with Rick Cooper.

• Friday, July 15, 6:30 p.m. at the Hanapepe Library:

“Why We Fight,” a film about the U.S. military.

Discussion with Rick Cooper.

• Sunday, July 17, 1 p.m. at the Kapaa Neighborhood Center:

“Oceans,” Disney documentary film about the ocean.

Discussion with Gordon LaBedz.

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