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Coastal panel votes to restrict Navy's use of sonar

Training exercises would have to be moved away from areas with large numbers of marine mammals to prevent harm.

January 11, 2007|From the Associated Press

The California Coastal Commission voted Wednesday to impose restrictions on the U.S. Navy's use of sonar, which has been linked to harmful effects on whales and other marine life.

The Navy has been using sonar during training exercises off the California coast for decades, but this is the first time it has gone before the commission to seek approval of its activities.

The commission voted 8 to 1 to place restrictions on how the Navy conducts the training, including moving the exercises away from areas with a high concentration of marine mammals and lowering sonar levels when they are present.

The Navy decided to seek the commission's consent because of new internal guidelines requiring it to ensure that major exercises are environmentally compliant.

"We believe we've taken many steps to safeguard the environment, and we feel very confident the measures that we have in place protect the environment," said Matt Brown, spokesman for the Navy's Southwest region.

The secretary of the Navy will respond after reviewing the commission's recommendations.

Environmentalists applauded the commission's vote.

"The commission fulfilled its mandate from the people of California to protect our coast," said Cara Horowitz, an attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, which filed a federal lawsuit in Los Angeles demanding that the Navy develop a mitigation plan for the exercises.

Last July, a federal judge issued a temporary restraining order to block the Navy from using sonar during training in Hawaii. The resources defense council, which sought the injunction, argued that scientific evidence showed sonar can fatally harm marine mammals.

The two sides eventually settled, and the Navy agreed to stay away from certain sensitive marine habitats and increase whale monitoring in Hawaii.

The Navy conducts sonar-training runs in all of its operational waters including the East Coast, Gulf Coast, Hawaii and the Pacific Northwest. Sonar or pulses of sound are used to track submerged objects -- a key technology for finding enemy submarines.

Even though many of the training exercises would take place up to 80 miles off California, the Coastal Commission maintains jurisdiction because the activities would potentially affect marine life within the coastal zone.

The Navy's sonar exercises have been responsible for at least six incidents of mass death and unusual behavior among whales in the last decade, a U.S. Congressional Research Service report found last year.

Many of the beached or dead animals had damaged hearing organs.

Strandings occurred in the Bahamas in 2000, the Canary Islands in 2004 and North Carolina in 2005.

The Navy's sonar is also believed to affect other facets of marine life, including fish reproductive rates and the behavior of giant sea turtles.

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