Hawaiian Judge Rules Navy Sonar Harmful to Whales, Issues Injunction

Monday, March 3, 2008

Hawaii -- As part of a suit filed in May 2007 by several conservation groups, an injunction was issued Friday by a Hawaii federal district judge over the U.S. Navy's use of active sonar that he recognized as harmful to whales. Judge David A. Ezra stated that the evidence presented by the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI) and fellow co-plaintiffs was both "compelling" and "convincing."

Granting the motion for preliminary injunctive relief, Judge Ezra said, "[T]here is little disagreement that MFA [mid-frequency active] sonar can cause injury, death, and behavioral alteration to these animals." Further, he ruled that the Navy's reliance on a noise level of 173 decibels, below which it claims harm to animals from its sonar will not occur, was "arbitrary and capricious," an acknowledgment that even sonar noise at much lower intensity levels can harm and kill marine mammals.

"Whales have stranded and died at predicted noise levels of around 150 decibels 100 times less intense than the threshold set by the Navy," said AWI President Cathy Liss. "Such a level is without scientific justification."

The injunction now prevents the Navy from proceeding with its use of active sonar in an upcoming March exercise in Hawaiian waters until specific precautions prescribed by the judge are taken. After the exercise, Judge Ezra will review the results of the exercise to consider modification of these imposed safety measures.

The Navy's mid-frequency active sonar has been linked to the mass stranding of marine mammals in Spain (2006), the Canary Islands (2004, 2002, and 2000), the Bahamas (2000), Madeira (2000), Greece (1996) and numerous other places. In July 2004, the Navy's sonar was implicated in the embayment of 100 to 200 melon-headed whales in Hanalei Bay, Hawaii and a whale calf died.

The non-governmental organizations allege that the Navy is in violation of the National Environmental Policy Act, the Coastal Zone Management Act, and the National Marine Sanctuaries Act. They challenge the National Marine Fisheries Service, which regulates the Navy's sonar use, with failure to comply with the Endangered Species Act. Copies of the judge's order, which also include opinion on the merits of the suit, are available on request.

Additional co-plaintiffs in the suit, originally filed by Honolulu-based environmental law defender Earthjustice, are the Center for Biological Diversity, the Hawaiian Environmental Alliance (KAHEA), the Ocean Mammal Institute, and the Surfrider Foundation-Kauai Chapter.

The Washington, D.C.-based AWI, leader of the 1970s "Save the Whales" campaign, has worked for over 50 years to reduce the sum total of fear and pain inflicted on animals by humans.

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