Navy Agrees to Sonar Precautions

Times Staff Writer

The Navy and an environmental group reached an out-of-court agreement Friday on the issue of whale safety that will allow the Navy to use active sonar during a multinational exercise underway off Hawaii.

The Navy agreed to add whale spotters during sonar drills and to expand a buffer zone where it would not conduct the active sonar drills.

In exchange, the Natural Resources Defense Council withdrew its lawsuit. The compromise was ratified by a federal judge in Los Angeles.

Environmental attorney Richard Kendall called the settlement “a significant step forward in the protection of our oceans.” A Navy admiral characterized it as requiring “a small number of additional mitigation measures.”


On Monday, District Judge Florence-Marie Cooper, sitting in Los Angeles, had blocked the Navy from using the midfrequency active sonar until a July 18 hearing. She had agreed with the lawsuit’s assertion that the sonar use would violate the National Environmental Policy Act.

The Navy on Wednesday had sought to have Cooper’s order quashed by a federal appeals court as endangering national security and military cooperation between the U.S. and its allies.

The Rim of the Pacific exercises that began last week involve naval forces from eight countries, including 40 ships, six submarines and 19,000 military personnel.

The Navy insists that the active sonar exercises are needed to train sailors to detect stealthy submarines such as those in the naval forces of Iran, North Korea and China.


But environmentalists say the sound waves produced by the sonar could injure or possibly kill whales and other marine mammals.

Rear Adm. James Symonds, the Navy’s director of environmental readiness, in announcing the settlement, said it was “critically important that we have been able to turn active sonar on” for the rest of the RIMPAC exercise, set to run through July 28.

Under the agreement, the Navy promised not to use the sonar within 25 miles of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Marine National Monument, recently established by President Bush as a nature preserve. The RIMPAC exercise had not been planned for that area, Navy officials said.

Also, the Navy promised to have more whale spotters and to order sailors manning detection microphones to listen for whale sounds.


The Navy agreed to publicize a marine mammal hotline in Hawaii for residents to report any mammal incidents that might result from the sonar exercises.

In 2004, during similar exercises, 150 melon-headed whales moved into a shallow bay off Kauai, apparently spooked by the naval activity. A federal study later blamed the Navy’s use of active sonar.

Before this year’s RIMPAC, the Navy had agreed to mitigation measures suggested by the National Marine Fisheries Service, including spotters and off-limits zones.

But after the agency granted an “incidental harassment” permit for the sonar drill, the Natural Resources Defense Council filed the lawsuit, calling those measures inadequate.


Navy officials said the new measures could be easily accommodated into the war-game planning and the active sonar might be turned on as soon as today.

In an effort to thwart the lawsuit by the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Department of Defense had granted a six-month exemption to the Navy to strictures in the Marine Mammal Protection Act. But Cooper, in issuing her temporary sonar ban, ruled the exemption did not apply to a second environmental law.

The issue of sonar’s impact on marine life has flared for several years as whales have beached in several areas around the globe after Navy ships have used active sonar.