Spin Zone: Sonar Training

November, 2007

Should we allow sonar training in Hawaii?

PAUL ACHITOFF, Managing Attorney , Earth Justice, Hawaii Office

A: There is no scientific doubt the loud, mid-frequency active sonar the Navy wants to use in the national marine sanctuary surrounding Hawaii can injure and kill whales; this has happened around the world following sonar use. At least 16 whales died in the Bahamas in 2000 after exposure at levels the Navy deems “safe;” most survivors abandoned the area. In 2004, some 200 melon-headed whales were stranded in Hanalei Bay during Navy training exercises; one calf died. However, scientists say that most whales injured by sonar around Hawaii will never be detected due to Hawaii’s long stretches of remote coastline, strong currents and scavenging sharks.
Even a Navy-sponsored study found the evidence of sonar-induced harm “completely convincing,” and advised focusing on “how best to avoid/minimize future beaching events.” Unfortu-nately, scientific evidence indicates the Navy’s plan to look for whales with binoculars when crew aren’t too busy is ineffective (especially at night).
Arguing training is necessary sidesteps the real issue–how, where and when to train. Using preventive measures adopted by other navies using intense sonar would help balance legitimate defense concerns with preventing unnecessary harm. Australia’s navy follows geographic and seasonal restrictions on sonar use; so should ours. NATO naval forces ramp up sonar levels gradually to allow whales to escape. Our Navy can do likewise. Our Navy has even used some of these measures in the past, but now pushes to train whenever, wherever, however it pleases. This uncompromising, “my way or the highway” approach is unnecessary.
Endangered humpbacks swim 3,500 miles to winter in Hawaii’s waters to nurse their calves, while seamounts west of the Big Island are home to beaked whales known to be especially vulnerable to sonar. Preserving our oceans and its inhabitants is everyone’s responsibility – especially the Navy’s.

BOB DEWITZ, Board of Directors, The Navy League, Honolulu Chapter

A: Our national interests compel it. Americans take for granted that our Navy can protect our interest and–when required – strike our enemies, anywhere in the world, instantaneously. America’s strength on the high seas is a key deterrent to aggression from developing nations flexing their new-found muscle, or other forces seeking to disrupt the 95 percent of global commerce that travels upon the seas.
As dominant as our naval power is, it is a highly perishable capability. It is dependent upon continuous, realistic training, using all of the systems, including active sonar, needed to survive and win battles at sea. Hawaii’s deep water, combined with the capabilities of the Pacific Range Facility, is a unique asset. Only here can we
train with the sonar that detects and defends against the ultra-quiet foreign submarines that, even now, shadow our Pacific Fleet; submarines designed to torpedo and destroy an aircraft carrier in seconds. War is not the time for on-the-job training; there are no second chances.
Studies indicate that 33 marine mammals may have died in the past three years due, in part, to active sonar. Compare this to 600,000 killed each
year by fishing, 600 each year by whaling, and 1,200 each year for “research.” Sonar, active less than 1
percent of the time ships are at sea, is not the bane of marine mammals.
The negligible impact of sonar must be weighed against our vital defense needs. We in Hawaii cherish our marine mammals – and in our waters they are thriving. We also cherish our military, which goes in harm’s way to defend America. Let us not tie their hands, let them train – judiciously – with the sonar that can be the difference between life and death, victory and defeat. Our Navy has struck the right balance between nature and nation.

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