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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Thursday, July 15, 2004

Groups urge Navy to reduce sonar harm to whales

By Jan TenBruggencate
Advertiser Science Writer

Four national and international environmental and animal rights groups — citing the appearance of a distressed pod of whales in a Kaua'i bay two weeks ago during Navy active sonar exercises — are asking the Navy to take steps to minimize injury to whales.

The groups, in a letter to be given to Navy Secretary Gordon R. England today, said the powerful sonar signals are "known to be implicated in a growing number of mass mortalities of whales."

The Natural Resources Defense Council, Jean-Michel Cousteau's Ocean Futures Society, Humane Society of the United States and the International Fund for Animal Welfare prepared the 13-page letter. Several of the groups' recommendations have been employed by the Navy, like ensuring that no whales are present before using the sonar technology.

"Ships are directed in their operational orders to use lookouts and to do a 360-degree search around the ship. The Pacific Missile Range Facility also searches the operational area with fixed and rotary-wing aircraft. If there are any marine mammals located, the operations are suspended until the animals clear the range," said Navy Pacific Fleet spokesman Lt. Dave Benham.

He said a detailed response to the groups should come from Washington after the Secretary of the Navy receives the letter.

More than half of Navy ships are equipped with mid-frequency active sonar, which uses pulses of high-volume sound primarily to locate submarines. The Navy has acknowledged that the sonar can injure marine mammals under certain conditions.

A pod of between 100 and 200 melon-headed whales crowded into Kaua'i's north-facing Hanalei Bay early on July 3, while four Japanese and two U.S. Navy ships were conducting exercises nearby that included active sonar.

The Navy reported that it did not begin using the sonar until 8:33 a.m., an hour after the whales entered the bay. The animals remained in the bay the entire duration of the sonar use, which the Navy halted after learning of the Hanalei whale pod.

The pod was escorted out of the bay by canoe paddlers the next day, but a three-foot newborn whale was found dead on the beach on July 5. It was shipped to California for a complete necropsy.

The letter argues that the Navy has an obligation under the U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act and other laws to mitigate its impact on whales. It also suggests the Navy consider reducing the volume and changing the characteristics of the sound signal so it is less dangerous to marine mammals.

Reach Jan TenBruggencate at jant@honoluluadvertiser.com or (808) 245-3074.