Federal Judge Puts Restrictions on Naval Sonar Exercises

Paul Achitoff
Paul Achitoff

By Mari-Ela David

HONOLULU (KHNL) -- The Navy says sonar exercises are critical for national defense. Environmentalists say they harm and can kill marine mammals. On Friday, a federal judge intervened in this heated battle.

Judge David Ezra issued a preliminary injunction effective immediately. The ruling restricts the Navy's use of sonar during exercises in Hawaii's waters.

Environmentalists call it a victory, saying the court order better shields marine mammals from sonar exercises.

"Last April, two of these exercises took place in Hawaii's waters and after each one, a pigmy sperm whale washed up dead - one on Lanai, one on Maui. The Navy claims there's no connection but the Navy always claims that," said Earth Justice Attorney Paul Achitoff, who represents the environmental groups in the lawsuit.

The ruling limits the Navy's use of sonar. Among the limits - starting sonar power at a low level, then gradually increasing it. That way, marine mammals have time to get out of the area before transmissions reach harmful levels.

In a statement, the Navy says "The court...has put in place restrictions that could seriously impact our ability to train effectively. In ordering additional mitigation to reduce the risk to marine mammals, the order shifts the risk to Sailors and Marines."

"They are able to train, they just want to be able to do what they want, when they want, where they want and unfortunately there are reasons why that's not possible," said Achitoff.

Reasons Earth Justice says were most apparent in 2004, when 200 melon-headed whales were stranded at Hanalei Bay, Kauai. Friday's court order finds that the Navy's use of sonar at the time is considered a plausible, if not likely, contributing factor to the mass stranding.

The Navy hasn't said if it plans to appeal the ruling. For now, the Navy says it is carefully studying the court's decision.