Biologists praise sonar decision

KAPAA — Friday’s 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejection of sonar rules have Kauai biologists and conservationists shouting victory, but they’re reserving absolute celebration until the matter is put to rest.

“This is one step in correcting the soundscape pollution and we can go forward now to more and more understand the importance of the pristine ocean,” said Kapaa marine biologist Katherine Muzik.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a 2012 lower court decision upholding approval for the Navy to use low-frequency sonar for training, testing and routine operations.

The five-year approval covered peacetime operations in the Pacific, Atlantic, and Indian Oceans and the Mediterranean Sea.

The appellate panel sent the matter back to the lower court for further proceedings, and Muzik said she’s hopeful it will be the momentum toward ending sonar use.

“We’ll see what happens,” she said.

Sonar is used to detect submarines, but it can also injure whales, dolphins and other marine mammals — disrupting their mating, eating and predator evasion habits.

“Stopping sound gives you great hope so the animals can hear, court one another, find food and escape predators,” Muzik said. “Sound is of the upmost importance to these sea creatures and as humans, who primarily rely on sight, we forget that.”

She also pointed out that discontinuing sound pollution in the ocean is one of many fixes needed to save the Earth’s oceans, but it’s one that would have immediate results.

“The pharmaceuticals, the hormones, the radiation, the plastic; all those linger around,” Muzik said. “There are so many terrible impacts to the ocean, but once you stop sound, the pollution is gone.”

Hanalei marine biologist Terry Lilley, who has long sought to spotlight the effects of sonar in the ocean, was pleased with the court’s decision but said there is more to do on the issue. He is headed to Australia in a few weeks to give a talk on the effects of sonar on marine life.

“We will never be able to save our coral reefs or marine life if National Marine Fisheries Service does not enforce the current Endangeres Species Act,” he wrote.

The 2012 rules adopted by the NMFS allowed Navy sonar use to affect about 30 whales and two dozen pinnipeds, marine mammals with front and back flippers such as seals, each year.

Environmental groups, led by the Natural Resources Defense Council, filed a lawsuit in San Francisco in 2012, arguing the approval violated the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

The appelate court ruled 3-0 that the approval failed to meet a section of the protection act, requiring peacetime oceanic programs to have “at least practicable adverse impact on marine mammals.”

The panel concluded the fisheries service “did not give adequate protection to areas of the world’s oceans flagged as biologically important,” according to a summary accompanying the court’s decision.

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