for National Geographic News
In compliance with an out-of-court settlement with an environmental group, the U.S Navy began using mid-frequency sonar yesterday during training exercises off Hawaii.
A U.S. district court judge had issued a temporary retraining order on July 3 forbidding the use of powerful sonar during the Hawaii excercises. But the Navy later agreed to a number of whale-protection measures in consultation with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), which had filed the lawsuit that had resulted in the restraining order.
The Navy agreed to use intense sonar sparingly, to add additional whale spotters on every vessel during drills, to steer clear of a vast new protected area, and to publicize a hotline for reporting marine-mammal incidents related to the international war games now taking place.
In exchange, NRDC withdrew its lawsuit.
"We can protect our national security and also protect the wildlife that shares the ocean," said NRDC spokesperson Daniel Hinerfeld.
"They are not mutually exclusive activities. It just requires a little bit of care and planning."
The group says mid-frequency sonar has been linked to mass strandings and deaths of marine species around the world.
After a similar naval exercise off Hawaii in 2004, a mass stranding of 150 melon-headed whales occurred. A federal investigation concluded that mid-frequency sonar was likely a contributing factor.
Scanning the Seas
Mid-frequency sonar equipment emits high-decibel sound waves across tens or even hundreds of miles of ocean to reveal objects underwater.
The U.S. Navy says the technology has become more important to national security in recent years, as other countries have acquired quieter submarines.
Rear Adm. James Symonds, the Navy's director of environmental readiness, believes it's critically important to use active sonar during the exercises, which take place until the end of this month.
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