Environmental groups sued the Navy on Wednesday to compel steps they believe would protect marine mammals when sailors use sonar to practice submarine hunting off Hawaii.
The groups want the court to prohibit naval sonar exercises near Hawaii until sailors adopt mitigation measures to protect marine mammals, citing studies saying Navy sonar can “kill, injure, or significantly alter the behavior of whales and dolphins.”
The suit says the Navy plans a series of up to 12 anti-submarine warfare exercises off Hawaii through next year.
Earthjustice sued in federal court in Honolulu on behalf of five groups, including the Ocean Mammal Institute and the Animal Welfare Institute.
Paul Achitoff, the lead Earthjustice attorney for the case, said that other organizations were challenging anti-submarine warfare exercises in other areas but that this was the only case seeking to force the Navy to change how it conducts drills off Hawaii.
A Navy spokesman said the service was complying with all applicable laws and regulations, adding that sailors have used active sonar in two undersea warfare exercises in the islands since January without incident.
“We go to great lengths to minimize any potential effects on marine life through the use of protective measures and make every effort to safeguard marine mammals when exercises are conducted,” said Jon Yoshishige, a spokesman for the U.S. Pacific Fleet.
The lawsuit also names the National Marine Fisheries Service, which awards permits to the Navy to carry out underwater exercises.
Jim Lecky, director of the office of protected resources at the Fisheries Service, said his organization was working with the Navy to finish environmental studies governing anti-submarine warfare exercises.
The Navy last year decided for the first time to seek federal permits to use sonar in exercises.
Until the studies are completed, the Navy has agreed to post more lookouts on ships to watch for marine mammals, Lecky said. The Navy also has agreed to turn off its sonar when marine mammals get too close.
During some exercises, the Navy uses airplanes to look for whales from the air, Lecky said.
Achitoff argued those measures don’t do enough to protect marine mammals. He said posting lookouts won’t protect whales that dive for long periods and can be affected by sonar while they’re underwater.
The environmental impact statements for sonar drills should be finished before the Navy conducts the exercises, he said.
Scientists say sonar may mask the echoes some whales and dolphins listen for when they use their own natural sonar to locate food. Navy sonar may also startle some species, in particular beaked whales, prompting them to rush to the surface.
There’s evidence that this gives them a form of “bends,” the decompression sickness human divers get when they surface too fast.
A National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration study said the Navy’s use of sonar contributed to the beaching of 16 whales and two dolphins in the Bahamas in 2000. Eight of those whales died, showing hemorrhaging around their brains and ear bones, possibly because they were exposed to loud noise.