In December, Earthjustice filed suit in Hawai’i federal court on behalf of AWI, challenging approval by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) of a five-year plan by the US Navy for testing and training activities, including active sonar and explosive use, in massive areas of the Pacific Ocean off Hawai’i and Southern California. The Navy and NMFS estimate this training will cause 9.6 million instances of harm, including permanent hearing loss, lung injuries and death to whales, dolphins and other marine mammals over the five-year period. The complaint was amended in January to add the Navy as a defendant after the Navy published its record of decision to proceed with its planned activities.
Ocean mammals depend on hearing for navigation, feeding and reproduction. Scientists have linked military sonar and live-fire activities to mass whale strandings, exploded eardrums and death. The first reported evidence of this link was in 2000, when whales of four different species stranded on beaches in the Bahamas. Similar mass strandings have occurred in the Canary Islands, Greece, Madeira, the US Virgin Islands and other sites around the globe. In 2004, during war games near Hawai’i, the Navy’s sonar was implicated in a mass stranding of up to 200 melon-headed whales in Hanalei Bay, Kaua’i. The UK’s Royal Navy was blamed by scientists earlier this year for a 2008 mass stranding off England’s Cornish coast. Up to 60 short-beaked common dolphins had swum into long and narrow Falmouth Bay to escape—the scientists postulated—the noise from active sonar use during a Royal Navy training exercise involving over 30 ships. Twenty-six previously healthy animals died in the bay a few days later, following another military acoustic/disturbance event that caused them to strand en masse. The rest were assisted back out to sea.
AWI and co-plaintiffs Conservation Council for Hawai’i, Center for Biological Diversity, and Ocean Mammal Institute are suing based on a requirement under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) that federal agencies evaluate the environmental impacts of their proposed actions and consider less environmentally harmful alternatives. Further, the public must be afforded an opportunity to review and comment on that analysis. We are challenging NMFS’s approval of the Navy’s plans without NMFS first evaluating alternatives that would place biologically important areas off-limits to training and testing. The amended complaint also added claims under the Endangered Species Act and Marine Mammal Protection Act.
Some of the marine mammals threatened by Navy activities are already on the brink of extinction, including the Hawaiian monk seal—Hawai’i’s state mammal and one of the world’s most endangered species. Ironically, NMFS had previously determined that Hawaiian monk seals in the main Hawaiian Islands are essential to the species’ survival, yet under the Navy’s plan approved by NMFS, each one of these seals will be harmed by sonar an average of 10 times a year. The lawsuit is not seeking to prevent all Navy training, but is aimed at making the government take the “hard look” required under NEPA before inflicting such massive harm on vulnerable marine mammal populations, and consider alternatives that would allow the Navy to achieve its goals with less damage.