Hawaiian Marine Life Needs Effective, Not Selective, Stewardship

Promising "140,000 square miles of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands to receive our nation's highest form of marine environmental protection," President Bush announced on June 15 the establishment of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands National Monument. If properly enforced, this will provide a safeguard for the flora and fauna of the vast area for future generations. But the good news is tempered by notable exclusions in the small print, including an exemption for "all activities and exercises of the Armed Forces." The timing of the monument announcement coincided with the seventh meeting of the United Nations Informal Consultative Process on Oceans and the Law of the Sea in New York, at which there was a discussion of ocean noise from all sources—including military sonar. Notably, the United States tried unsuccessfully to have the issue removed from the reportofthe meeting.

Key to the effectiveness of the monument is the money allotted for its management. Shortly after the Presidential proclamation, the Senate Appropriations Committee set aside $6.1 million for management and research in this area under the stewardship of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). A few weeks later, the House passed its appropriations bill and proposed the slashing of the 2007 NOAA budget by a whopping $500 million. The move was inconsistent with the recommendations of both the US Commission on Ocean Policy and the Pew Oceans Commission, the chairs of which issued a joint letter expressing their concern about the proposedfundingcuts.

The irony of the monument's military exemption was not lost on those paying close attention to Navy's biennial Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercises that took place around the more populated Hawaiian Islands in July. RIMPAC exercises two years ago led to the live stranding of over 150 melon headed whales in Hanalei Bay, Kauai, most likely caused by the Navy's sonar use, according to NOAA Fisheries. This year, the Navy applied for a permit for its deadly sonar use. NOAA Fisheries issued an inappropriate "incidental harassment authorization," with some added (though still insufficient) mitigations.

The Navy should have applied for an "incidental take authorization," since active sonar use has the potential for serious injury or mortality that could not be negated through mitigations. The added mitigations imposed by NOAA Fisheries included requiring a minute reduction in the level of the sonar when animals were spotted close to the source vessels. Yet the source levels would still have been many thousands of times greater than those that have caused mortality in previous cases, even if observers had been able to spot the diving animals and react in time. Active sonar use during the RIMPAC exercises was almost halted, until a settlement on a temporary restraining order was reached, and the Navy proceeded with nominal extra precautions—none of which assured the safety of marine animals.