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YOKOSUKA NAVAL BASE, Japan — The debate over protecting marine mammals from U.S. Navy sonar made waves in Hawaii this month, but the resulting restrictions won’t ripple to the other side of the Pacific, a Navy official said Friday.

“I don’t see how it will change anything,” said U.S. Pacific Fleet spokesman Capt. Scott Gureck. “We have established and proven procedures to protect marine life, and it’s the Navy’s position that they are working.”

That point was argued this month in a flurry of litigation headed by the Natural Resources Defense Council, which maintains that the Navy’s medium-frequency sonar harms whales.

The Rim of the Pacific exercise, or RIMPAC — a biennial international war game off Hawaii — was the focal point, as sonar is used in anti-submarine warfare drills involving eight countries.

The NRDC charged that sonar used in RIMPAC 2004 contributed to the stranding of 150 melon-headed whales, one of which died, and pushed for extra requirements — including more marine mammal lookouts, added microphones during the sonar use and a 25-mile sonar-free buffer zone around the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Marine National Monument.

A July 7 settlement between the U.S. Navy and the NRDC mandated those rules be used during RIMPAC 2006.

The Navy has no plans to carry those further, Gureck said.

“The measures haven’t changed anything,” Gureck said. “We’re taking people away from workstations to put extra people on lookout. This means they’re not getting warfighting training, which puts sailors and our country at risk.”

That risk, in terms of anti-submarine warfare, is largely concentrated on the other side of the Pacific, where anti-submarine warfare is “the No. 1 warfighting priority,” according to U.S. Pacific Fleet Adm. Gary Roughhead.

This means using active sonar, which is the Navy’s primary tool in tracking the ultra- quiet diesel-electric submarines favored by Iran, North Korea and China. An estimated 140 submarines are cruising the Pacific’s sea lanes today, said 7th Fleet spokesman Cmdr. Ike Skelton.

“Active sonar is the only effective means available today to detect, track, and target modern subs under all ocean conditions,” Skelton said. “Dozens of navies around the world possess and continue to obtain modern submarines, and these extremely quiet vessels pose a serious threat to national security, the safety of our armed forces and our nation’s economic vitality.”

But diesel submarine noise doesn’t bother the 28 kinds of whales in Pacific waters off Okinawa; sonar does, says Senzo Uchida, marine mammal expert and managing director for the Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium.

“The (diesel submarine) noise is, however, not bad enough to lead them to abnormal behavior such as mass stranding,” Uchida said. “On the other hand, sonar causes mass stranding, a behavior that leads them to death. That is the problem.”

At Yokosuka Naval Base, the Scientific Committee of the International Whaling Commission has counted 10 mass strandings of beaked whales and 64 individual incidents near the base since 1960. Since only two other mass strandings of beaked whales occurred anywhere else in Japan, the group connected them to naval acoustics.

Japan’s Ministry of Environment and Japanese Fisheries Agency do not have regulations to control sonar waves underwater. Killing and eating whales and dolphins is allowed in Japan under certain circumstances. Even so, Uchida would like to see sonar restricted on this side of the Pacific just as it was for RIMPAC, he said.

If evidence is presented that sonar should be restricted in some waters, then it should be in others, Uchida said.

“It is a very simple logic,” Uchida said. “It does not matter whether a law exists to restrict it. If it is banned elsewhere, we don’t want it to be used in Okinawan waters, either.”

But the Navy maintains that the need for sonar outweighs the danger to marine mammals and that it’s already taking the steps necessary to protect them.

“You’ve got to balance being a responsible steward of the environment with the ability to respond to potential threats,” Gureck said. “Not to use sonar is an unacceptable position.”

Making waves at RIMPAC

RIMPAC — which stands for Rim of the Pacific — involves the United States, Japan, South Korea, Australia, Canada, Chile, Peru and the United Kingdom. It also involves about 40 ships, six submarines, 160 aircraft and an estimated 19,000 military personnel. It runs through July in the waters off Hawaii.

SONAR ON: The U.S. Navy was granted a National Oceanographic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) permit allowing the “incidental harassment and take,” or kill, of several species of marine mammals during the exercise.

The Navy also received a six-month exemption from the Marine Mammal Protection Act by the Department of Defense.

SONAR OFF: U.S. District Court Judge Florence-Marie Cooper of California decided RIMPAC 2006 had the “possibility” to “kill, injure, and disturb many marine species” and issued a temporary restraining order on July 3.

SONAR ON: The Natural Resources Defense Council and the Navy settled out of court July 7 after the Navy banned sonar use within 25 miles of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Marine National Monument, promised to add more lookouts and microphones to watch for marine mammals and pledged to turn down the sonar if one was spotted. All participating countries must abide by the U.S. Navy’s sonar rules.

— Allison Batdorff

Click here for more about sonar and how it works.


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