Sonar exercises should proceed with caution
The Navy today will get under way with the Rim of the Pacific Anti-submarine Warfare exercises, an important multinational training exercise conducted every other year since 1968. On 21 days of the exercises, scheduled to end July 28, tactical mid-frequency sonar will be used around the main islands of the state.
The Navy is approaching this issue carefully, seeking a federal permit for sonar use here. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration should grant the permit on the condition that the Navy tracks the environmental effects of this practice.
There is broad, international concern about how the sound waves produced by this technology affects whales and other marine mammals. The National Resources Defense Council led a coalition that targeted military sonar in a lawsuit, winning a ruling in 2003 restricting the Navy's use of one powerful sonar system; that case is on appeal by the Bush administration.
Research evidence is beginning to mount demonstrating a strong association between sound disturbances in the marine environment and disruptions to ocean animals, sometimes seen in the beaching of whales and other mammals. Scientists are still looking for the precise mechanism of this disruption — how does sound interfere with marine populations and at what level? In order for the federal agency to set rational environmental policies on what's sometimes called "sound pollution," we need clearer answers.
An advisory panel to the federal Marine Mammal Commission — comprising caucuses of experts from government, environmental groups, scientists and others — turned in a report in February suggesting exactly that. Among its sensible proposals: a national research program should be launched to gauge long-term and acute effects of sonar.
The Navy's first responsibility, obviously, is national security. But it is appropriate that it is a part of this important scientific effort. The key is to ensure that the Navy will be able to continue its vital training and preparedness efforts within the Islands.