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The Navy is tone deaf on whales

January 06, 2007|Jean-Michel Cousteau and Michael Jasny | JEAN-MICHEL COUSTEAU is founder and president of Ocean Futures Society in Santa Barbara. MICHAEL JASNY is a senior policy analyst with the Natural Resources Defense Council in Los Angeles.

LAST JULY, with ships off Hawaii poised to begin one of the Navy's largest training exercises, a federal judge in Los Angeles temporarily halted use of a dangerous type of military sonar -- called midfrequency active sonar, or MFA sonar, used to detect submarines -- that has been linked to mass strandings and deaths of whales around the world. The Navy was allowed to proceed with its exercises only when it agreed to take significant, common-sense measures to protect whales and other marine species, such as staying away from the newly designated Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Marine National Monument. This outcome showed that the Navy can, if ordered to do so, achieve its training objectives while making strides to protect the marine environment.

Yet now, in training exercises planned for California's coastal waters, the Navy is proposing to abandon its commitment to safeguard whales and their habitat from high-intensity sonar. It has submitted an application to the California Coastal Commission to conduct two years of intensive MFA sonar training off Southern California without committing to measures that effectively protect the state's rich marine life. The commission is scheduled to make a final decision next week. The proposed training would take place in some of the most diverse and biologically rich waters off the continental United States -- waters that host blue whales, humpbacks, gray whales, dolphins, porpoises and other sensitive and iconic California species.

That MFA sonar can cause serious injury and death to whales is beyond reasonable scientific dispute. Sonar has been associated with mass strandings off Hawaii, Alaska, the Bahamas, the Virgin Islands, Japan and numerous other sites. In 2004, at a symposium by the International Whaling Commission, more than 100 whale biologists reported that the association between sonar and whale deaths "is very convincing and appears overwhelming." The same year, an expert panel commissioned by the Navy reached the same conclusion.

Despite the proven dangers, the Navy persists in thinking that sonar training doesn't pose a significant threat to the environment, and so objects to adequate precautions. The Navy asked the commission in effect to rubber-stamp its application without any real information about steps it will or won't take to protect marine life.

The Navy should not be permitted to conduct, and the commission must not approve, dangerous sonar training without assurances that the Navy will take meaningful steps to protect whales and other marine life.

Such steps include avoiding key whale habitats, such as the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary; turning off sonar if whales get too close; limiting training in low-visibility conditions, in which whales cannot be detected; and taking other common-sense measures to minimize the risk of more whale deaths. The Coastal Commission has the power to make these demands. Indeed, in a 40-page report issued last week, the commission's staff recommended such measures.

The Coastal Commission was created 35 years ago by a vote of the people to act as the state's independent voice for the conservation and management of our greatest economic and environmental resource -- our coast and coastal waters. When the Navy requests permission to train in our coastal waters, it cannot reasonably refuse to protect those waters and the marine life that thrives there. The commission must insist that it do so.

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