Maui News


January 14, 2009, 10:09 PM HST
* Updated January 15, 9:35 AM
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The U.S. Navy received federal authorization this month to continue sonar training exercises in Hawaiian waters.  The Fisheries Service with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration does not expect the exercises to result in serious injury or death to marine mammals, but is requiring mitigation measures to protect the whales and other marine life, and minimize effects.  The authorization must be renewed annually and includes mitigation measures that require the establishment of marine mammal safety zones and a stranding response plan.

In a press release issued by the NOAA Fisheries Service, it was noted that, “in a small number of cases, exposure to sonar in certain circumstances has been associated with the stranding of some marine mammals, and some injury or death potentially could occur despite the best efforts of the Navy.” Therefore, the regulations and the letter, the agency said, allow for incidental impacts on marine mammals, including injury or death of up to 10 animals of each of 11 species over the five years covered by the regulations.

NOAA’s Fisheries Service has determined that these effects would have a negligible effect on the species or stocks involved.  Under the regulations and the letter, the Navy must follow mitigation measures to minimize effects on marine mammals, including:

  • establishing marine mammal safety zones around each vessel using sonar;
  • using Navy observers to shut down sonar operations if marine mammals are seen within designated safety zones;
  • using of exclusion zones to ensure that explosives are not detonated when animals are detected within a certain distance;
  • implementing a stranding response plan that includes a training shutdown provision in certain circumstances and a memorandum of agreement to allow the Navy to contribute in-kind services to NOAA’s Fisheries Service if the agency has to conduct a stranding response and investigation;
  • establishing an area of extra caution in the Maui Basin because of its high density of humpback whales.

These measures, the NOAA Fisheries said, should minimize the potential for injury or death and significantly reduce the number of marine mammals exposed to levels of sound likely to cause temporary loss of hearing.

The Navy has been conducting training exercises, including the use of mid-frequency sonar, in the Hawaiian Islands for more than 40 years. Exercises range from large multi-national, month-long training exercises using multiple submarines, ships, and aircraft conducted every other year, known as Rim of Pacific Training Exercises, to two- to three-day exercises to test the readiness of battle groups, known as Undersea Warfare Exercises or USWEXs, and shorter exercises that last less than a day. In addition, some exercises involve the use of explosives.


This regulation, in effect for five years, governs the incidental take of marine mammals during the Navy’s training activities, and includes required mitigation and monitoring measures. The letters of authorization, which are required for the Navy to legally conduct their activities, are issued annually, provided the Navy abides by the terms and conditions of the letter, submits the required annual reports, and shows their activities do not result in more numerous effects or more severe harm to marine mammals than were originally analyzed or authorized.


(Posted by Wendy Osher:  Wednesday, January 14, 2009)

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