Navy Ocean Noise Settlement Signals Safer Haven for Marine Life

For more than a decade, AWI has been working to stop the US Navy from using harmful active sonar in areas where it can negatively impact marine animals. Over the summer of 2015, the tide finally turned. For the first time ever, the US Navy has agreed to put important habitat for numerous marine animal populations off-limits to both mid-frequency active sonar training and testing and the use of powerful explosives.

The path to this sea change wasn’t always smooth. In 2013, AWI and its co-plaintiffs sued the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) in the federal district court in Honolulu for authorizing the Navy’s exercises involving active sonar and explosives. In 2014, other groups filed a similar suit in California; ultimately the cases were joined. This April, the Honolulu court ruled that NMFS had acted illegally in granting the Navy permission to harm more than 60 separate populations of whales, dolphins, seals, and sea lions across the Pacific Ocean.

Armed with the ruling and wishing to avoid an appeal, AWI and its co-plaintiffs entered into settlement negotiations with the Navy, with attorney David Henkin of EarthJustice (which represented AWI and others in the case) at the helm. After a lengthy and sometimes difficult back and forth over the summer, a settlement was finally reached. The agreement aims to manage the siting and timing of Navy activities, taking into account locations of vital importance to marine mammals, such as reproductive and feeding areas, migratory corridors, and regions in which small, resident populations are concentrated.

Until it expires in late 2018, the agreement will protect habitat for the most vulnerable marine mammal populations, including those of endangered blue whales, for whom waters off Southern California are a globally important feeding area, and numerous small, resident populations of whales and dolphins, for whom the seas around the Hawaiian Islands are their only home. We are hopeful that, given the unprecedented concession by the Navy that it can train effectively and still avoid key biologically sensitive areas, it will agree beyond 2018 to similar precautions in other areas and across the Pacific.

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