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Friday, May 17, 2024 | Back issues
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Last-Ditch Effort to Save Whales From Navy

HONOLULU (CN) - The Navy will kill thousands of whales and other endangered marine mammals with years of sonar tests and underwater explosions set to begin the day after Christmas, environmentalist claim in an eleventh-hour federal lawsuit.

The Conservation Council for Hawaii et al. sued the National Marine Fisheries Service and U.S. Department of Commerce, in federal court.

The lawsuit is a last-ditch effort to stop the Navy from beginning the biologically destructive testing. The Conservation Council claims the tests will kill at least eight protected species of marine mammals.

They claim the defendants violated the National Environmental Policy Act by approving 5 years of Navy sonar testing in the Hawaii-Southern California Training and Testing Study Area.

The 2.6 million square-mile area is as large as the land mass of all 50 U.S. states, comprising 2.7 million square nautical miles around the Hawaiian island chain, and 120,000 square nautical miles of ocean between Dana Point and San Diego.

"The waters of the HSTT Study Area include some of the most biologically significant and productive marine areas in the world," the complaint states. They are home to at least 43 species of marine mammals, including five endangered whale species (blue, fin, humpback, sei and sperm), endangered Hawaii insular false killer whales, endangered Hawaii monk seals, and threatened Guadalupe fur seals."

The National Marine Fisheries Service this month issued a record of decision based on a Navy environmental impact statement.

The environmental groups challenge the defendants' promulgation of "Five-Year Regulations and Letters of Authorization (LOA) under the Marine Mammal Protection Act to authorize the most environmentally destructive of the alternatives the Navy analyzed for training and testing in the HSTT Study Area during the period December 26, 2013 through December 25, 2018."

The testing involves emission of "nearly 60,000 hours of the Navy's most powerful mid-frequency active sonar and over 450,000 hours of other mid-frequency sonar, low-frequency sonar, high-frequency sonar, and other sources into the biologically diverse waters of the HSTT Study Area."

"In addition to the use of sonar and other active acoustic sources, NMFS authorized the Navy to use more than 260,000 explosives in the HSTT Study Area from December 2013 to December 2018.""

The ocean is an acoustic environment. Marine mammals and many species of fish rely on sound to forage, breed, navigate, communicate and avoid predators, in short, to survive.

"Scientists have documented mass strandings; mortal injuries, including lesions and hemorrhaging in vital organs; and behavior changes in numerous marine mammal species following naval sonar training exercises around the world," the complaint states.

"Underwater explosive detonations send shock waves and sound energy through the water that can kill or injure marine mammals."

A federal judge last week set a deadline for the NMFS to comply with federal guidelines. That prompted the Department of Commerce and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to publish their own guidelines for the "incidental take" of marine mammals during the Navy's sonar activities.

The Dec. 4, 2013 Section 50 CFR Part 218.88 (2) publication, "Renewals and Modifications of Letters of Authorization," states, in part: "If NMFS determines that an emergency exists that poses a significant risk to the well-being of the species or stocks of marine mammals [...] an LOA may be modified without prior notice or opportunity for public comment. Notice would be published in the Federal Register within 30 days of the action."

Plaintiffs seek declaratory and injunctive relief that vacates the authorization for the tests.

They are represented by David Henkin with the Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund.

Co-plaintiffs are the Animal Welfare Institute, the Center For Biological Diversity and the Ocean Mammal Institute.

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