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Navy seeks to resume sonar, explosives testing around Big Island

November 8, 2017 - 12:05am

HILO — The U.S. Navy wants to resume deploying sonar and explosives around the Big Island and Maui where it cut back after a 2015 lawsuit.

The Navy is holding public hearings on each island this week on a draft environmental impact statement seeking permission from the National Marine Fisheries Service for increased military training activity in those areas and others over the next five years.

The final public hearing, the only one on the Big Island, is set for 4-8 p.m. Thursday at Waiakea High School in Hilo.

“This draft EIS/OEIS supports the Navy’s increased focus on live training to meet evolving surface warfare challenges,” the Navy states in the document. “This results in a proposed increase in levels of air-to-surface warfare activities and an increased reliance on the use of non-explosive and explosive rockets, missiles and bombs.”

It’s a given that the training is harmful to some marine mammals such as whales and dolphins. At issue is how much harm the mammals — many of them protected under the Endangered Species Act — will experience and what the Navy will do to reduce harm.

The draft EIS anticipates minimal harm from its training activities, saying only .03 percent of affected marine mammals will experience injury or death.

“Marine mammals and sea turtles are the primary resources of concern for cumulative impacts analysis, but the proposed action is not anticipated to incrementally contribute to these resources in a way that becomes significant to already declining populations,” the Navy says in the EIS.

The Navy had agreed to refrain from exercises in sensitive areas around Hawaii Island in the 2015 settlement agreement that came from a lawsuit against Marine Fisheries filed by Earthjustice on behalf of the Conservation Council of Hawaii and other groups, Earthjustice attorney David Henkin said Tuesday.

“It will be more destructive than what was in the 2015 settlement agreement,” Henkin said. “These are biologically sensitive areas.”

The Navy plans to take special care in those areas, according to its EIS.

In the West-side Hawaii Island Planning Awareness Area, for example, the Navy will not conduct more than one large integrated anti-submarine major training exercise (such as Rim of the Pacific) every other year; and three medium integrated anti-submarine major training exercises (Undersea Warfare Exercise) per year using surface ship hull-mounted mid-frequency active sonar, the EIS says.

In the West-side and East-side Hawaii Island Cautionary Areas, the Navy will not use in-water explosives during unit-level training, major training exercises or testing events. If required for national security, naval units will obtain permission from a command-delegated authority prior to starting activity.

In all three areas, if additional activities are required for national security, the Navy will provide Marine Fisheries with advance notice and include the information in reports.

The Navy says it will also take extra precautions during humpback whale season from Nov. 15 to April 15.

Scientific studies on the impacts of sonar and explosives on marine mammals — many subsidized by the Navy itself — have shown mixed results. Some marine mammals who make a lot of noise on their own, such as humpback whales and some dolphins, seem to experience minimal effects, said Marc Lammers, a former University of Hawaii researcher who is now research coordinator for the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary on Maui.

Other mammals, such as melon-headed whales seen in the channel between West Hawaii and Maui, are more susceptible to the weapons training. Deep-diving whales such as the beaked whale can also experience problems when they are disrupted mid-dive and contract the whale equivalent of the bends.

Whales disrupted by sonar can become panicked or disoriented and beach themselves in shallow water as they try to escape the noise. Other mammals, such as some dolphins, seem to be able to close their ears to the noise, Lammers said.

Mammals accustomed to noise from military, commercial shipping and oil exploration seem to show less of a reaction than more naive mammals, he said. Some simply leave the area and come back later.

“It’s a complicated issue,” Lammers said Tuesday. “Sometimes they respond in a very clear way and sometimes it’s ambiguous.”

Henkin said he understands the need for national defense. He just thinks training can be conducted while still protecting endangered wildlife. It’s not an either/or situation, he said.

“They need authorization to do it because it’s harmful,” Henkin said.

The full EIS can be downloaded at

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