updated 1/23/2009 2:00:46 PM ET 2009-01-23T19:00:46

Federal fisheries regulators announced rules Friday to protect marine mammals during Navy sonar training along the Atlantic coast and in the Gulf of Mexico.

The rules authorize the Navy to conduct the training, while requiring it to take steps to avoid endangering mammals such as whales.

Similar regulations were issued previously covering the West Coast and Hawaii by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The rules will be in effect for five years, but the Navy will have to provide annual reports and seek a new letter of authorization for its training each year, said Jim Lecky, director of the office of protective services at NOAA's Fisheries Service.

Last fall the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Navy in a case in which environmental groups had sought to block sonar training off the coast of Southern California.

The Fisheries Service said it does not expect the naval exercises to result in injury or death to marine mammals. However, in some cases exposure to sonar has been associated with animals becoming stranded on shore.

Because the sound generated by tactical active sonar may affect the behavior of some marine mammals, or cause a temporary loss of their hearing, the Navy had requested the authorization under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

The regulations require the Navy to:

  • Establish marine mammal safety zones around each vessel using sonar and to halt sonar operations if marine mammals are seen within these designated safety zones.
  • Set up a stranding response plan that includes a training shutdown if needed, and to assist NOAA's Fisheries Service if it has to come to the aid of stranded animals.
  • Limit helicopter dipping sonar and object detection exercises in the North Atlantic right whale critical habitat in the southeast Atlantic Ocean from December through March.
  • Minimize the impact from torpedo exercises conducted in the North Atlantic right whale critical habitat in the northeast Atlantic Ocean.
  • Use cautionary measures to reduce the likelihood of ship strikes of North Atlantic right whales.

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