Report Notes "Absence of Any Other Compelling" Explanation, Contradicts Navy Denials

LOS ANGELES (April 27, 2006) -- Active naval sonar was a "plausible, if not likely" factor in the 2004 mass stranding of more than 150 melon-headed whales in Hanalei Bay, Kaua'i, according to a report released today by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). It was the largest mass stranding of such whales ever recorded in Hawaiian waters. The findings contradict earlier statements by the Navy about when it used sonar and whether sonar played a role in the stranding.

"This was by far the largest stranding of melon-headed whales ever recorded in Hawaii," said Michael Jasny, a senior consultant with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). "Once again the Navy's denial has been contradicted by the official government investigation. It's time for the Navy to stop this needless infliction of harm."

The mass stranding occurred during the Navy's most recent biennial Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercise in which multiple naval vessels were operating high-intensity, mid-frequency active sonar. The Navy has applied for a permit to conduct another such exercise in June.

The report notes the stranding's "close spatiotemporal correlation with wide-scale, sustained use of sonar systems previously associated with stranding of deep-diving marine mammals," and "the absence of any other compelling causative explanation."

NOAA's report is available here.

The report concludes that sonar was used around the island the night before and the morning of the strandings, and that the noise at the mouth of Hanalei Bay was well above levels that can affect whale behavior (over 140 decibels). NOAA also found that sonar may have caused the whales to remain in the bay by turning back several attempts to escape, and that there was no weather or oceanographic event that would explain the offshore animals' appearance in the Bay or their inability to leave.

The findings contrast sharply with statements by the Navy. For a month after the event, the Navy categorically denied even using sonar before the whales appeared in the Bay. And as recently as this month, in its environmental review for an upcoming major exercise, the Navy claimed that the involvement of sonar was "improbable."

The report comes as NOAA considers authorizing the 2006 RIMPAC exercise, which the Navy has again scheduled for Hawaii this June. Despite some additional requirements, however, the draft authorization would permit the use of sonar around the islands and between exercise areas -- the same set of conditions associated with the 2004 stranding.

According to the Navy's modeling, over 30,000 marine mammals around Hawaii could be significantly affected.