Common Sense Measures in New Accord Include Sonar-Free Buffer Around Newly Created Marine National Monument
LOS ANGELES (July 7, 2006) - Conservation and animal welfare groups today reached a settlement in a hard-fought lawsuit against the U.S. Navy that will reduce needless harm to whales, dolphins and other marine life caused by high-intensity, mid-frequency sonar used during massive international war games now underway in waters off of Hawaii.
The settlement comes four days after the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and other organizations won a restraining order temporarily blocking the use of mid-frequency sonar during the eight-nation Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercises until better safety procedures were in place. In granting the order, the judge agreed the plaintiffs had presented "considerable convincing scientific evidence demonstrating that the Navy's use of MFA sonar can kill, injure, and disturb many marine species, including marine mammals."
Today's agreement, approved by the U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, requires new safeguards, including a sonar-free buffer zone around the Marine National Monument recently created by President Bush, and significant increases in monitoring for marine mammals during sonar drills.
"This settlement confirms that measures to protect our oceans can and must be part of the Navy's training for submarine defense," said Joel Reynolds, a senior attorney at NRDC and director of its Marine Mammal Protection Project. "Military readiness does not require, and our laws do not allow, our natural resources to be sacrificed in the name of national defense. That is a false choice, and this lawsuit has vindicated the essential principle that none of us, including the Navy, is above the law."
Among other things, the settlement specifically:
- Prevents the Navy from using sonar within the newly established Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Marine National Monument or within a 25-nautical-mile sonar buffer zone around it;
- Requires all Navy personnel listening through underwater detection microphones to monitor for marine mammals and report the detection of any marine mammal to the appropriate watch station for action;
- Requires aerial surveillance for marine mammals during sonar drills and reporting of sightings to a marine mammal response officer;
- Requires the Navy to have at least one dedicated and three non-dedicated marine mammal observers on every surface sonar vessel during all sonar drills, and to add an additional dedicated marine mammal observer during the three exercises occurring in channels between the islands;
- Requires the Navy to publicize in the local Hawaii press a hotline for reporting marine mammal incidents.
"We are pleased that the highest leadership in the U.S. Navy hierarchy has agreed to protective measures never before included in RIMPAC exercises," said Richard Kendall, a senior litigation partner at the Los Angeles law firm of Irell & Manella, co-counsel with NRDC in the lawsuit. "This is a significant step forward in the protection of our oceans."
During the last RIMPAC exercise in 2004, there was a mass stranding of more than 150 melon-headed whales in Kauai. A federal government investigation concluded that the Navy's sonar use was the "plausible, if not likely" cause of the stranding.
Today's settlement has no bearing on the lawsuit brought by NRDC and other groups last October over the Navy's use of mid-frequency sonar in other training exercises. That lawsuit is still pending in federal court in Los Angeles. (http://www.nrdc.org/media/pressreleases/051019.asp)
Whales exposed to high-intensity mid-frequency sonar have repeatedly stranded themselves and died on beaches around the world (including in Hawaii, Washington State, North Carolina and the Bahamas), some bleeding around the brain and in the ears, with severe lesions in their organ tissue. At lower intensities, sonar can interfere with the ability of marine mammals to navigate, avoid predators, find food, care for their young, and, ultimately, to survive.
There is scientific consensus that intense sonar blasts can disturb, injure, and even kill marine mammals. Biologists worry that whales found dying on beaches are only the tip of an iceberg, and that many more are dying at sea. One of the best-documented incidents took place in the Bahamas, in 2000, when 16 whales of three species stranded along 150 miles of shoreline as ships blasted the area with sonar. The U.S. Navy later acknowledged in an official report that its use of sonar was the likely cause of the stranding.
The lawsuit was brought by NRDC in conjunction with the International Fund for Animal Welfare, the Cetacean Society International, the Ocean Futures Society, and Jean-Michel Cousteau. Plaintiffs are represented by NRDC and by Richard Kendall, senior litigation partner at the law firm of Irell & Manella in Los Angeles, California, and a team of his colleagues at Irell & Manella.