CHATAN, Okinawa — Shock ran though the quiet community of Zamami this week in the wake of news reports that the U.S. Navy will use controversial low frequency sonar in waters off Japan’s coast.

This tiny island, part of the Kerama Island group some 25 miles west of Okinawa, is a Mecca for whale watchers who flock to the East China Sea each winter in hope of sighting humpback whales migrating from the Aleutian Islands to breed.

The U.S. Navy last week agreed to limit its peacetime use of a new sonar system to specific areas off the coasts of North and South Korea, China, Japan and the Philippines. The agreement was part of a settlement in a suit brought by the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group that claimed the high-intensity sonar harms marine mammals, such as whales and dolphins.

“What a shame, was my first thought when I learned of the news,” said Akira Oshiro of Zamami Village. He was among officials responsible for promoting Zamami for whale watching tours a decade ago.

“The waters in this area are some of the greatest places to watch whales,” he said Thursday. “I’ve heard about this sonar system that could threaten their lives.”

He said he was upset at both the Navy, which targeted Okinawan waters, and the environmental group, which accepted the settlement.

“I want to know on what ground they agreed on the use of the sonar in this area,” Oshiro said. “I wonder if they knew that the western Pacific Ocean is rich in marine mammals?”

The Zamami Whale Watching Association was set up in 1991. Oshiro said the island draws about 5,000 tourists between January and March, when the whales come to Okinawa to breed.

“But the number of tourists and their economic impact are actually of secondary importance,” he said. “What we treasure is the ocean where the whales live. We take pride in the sea where we can encounter whales.”

Oshiro said whales usually depart in early May.

“This is their breeding ground. After raising their offspring here, they migrate to waters off the coast of Alaska and Aleutian Islands to feed themselves,” he said - adding that because the area is a breeding ground, it also is where whales are most sensitive to external events.

Such events, he said, include using the latest sonar technology to hunt for submarines.

The Navy’s latest advance in sonar technology uses low frequency waves that can travel great distances underwater without losing strength. The technology is perfect for detecting quiet diesel submarines at great distances, weapons experts have said.

Environmentalists argue the sonar signals are incredibly loud and frighten sharp-eared whales, porpoises and other sea mammals.

They claim the sound panics the animals, causing them to surface rapidly, placing them in danger from the same decompression hazards that often plague divers.

Some of the animals become so disoriented and confused that they beach themselves and die, environmentalists claim.

“That is why it is sensible to limit the use of the sonar in areas that could adversely affect sea animals,” said Shinichi Hanawa of the World Wildlife Fund for Nature Japan.

“The waters off the coasts of the Ogasawara Islands and Okinawa are crucially important for whales,” he said. “Also, the water around Okinawa is where the endangered dugongs are.

“The use of the sonar in these areas is a serious problem,” he said.

Dugongs are saltwater manatees more commonly found off Australia and Indonesia. A small number have been sighted in Okinawan waters, causing local environmental groups to protest the planned construction of a sea-based Marine Corps air station.

The site is off Okinawa’s northeast coast near Camp Schwab, in an area of seaweed beds thought to be dugong feeding grounds.

However, WWF Japan had no immediate plan to challenge the settlement reached in San Francisco last week.

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