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Navy proves its love for whales and dolphins, curbing sonar use

Invoking animal rights or needs often seems to be the most effective method when it comes to environmental lobbying, and when it comes to marine mammals, we land dwellers seem to have a particular soft spot. After reports revealed that the United States Navy’s use of sonar in their training exercises were inadvertently harming whales, dolphins, seals, and sea lions, that military branch has agreed to curb its use of these techniques.

The decision comes as a resounding achievement for environmental groups, including Earthjustice and the Natural Resources Defense Council, which brought a lawsuit against the National Marine Fisheries Service for allowing the Navy’s training tactics to move forward. Thanks to a Honolulu-based federal judge, the use of mid-frequency active sonar and explosives have been banned near Hawaii and California, where much naval training takes place.

Lieutenant Commander Matt Knight, who serves as a U.S. Pacific Fleet spokesman, noted that these new restrictions would not create roadblocks in the Navy’s preparations. “Recognizing our environmental responsibilities,” Knight stated, “the Navy has been, and will continue to be, good environmental stewards as we prepare for and conduct missions in support of our national security.” So really, it looks like a win-win for everyone involved.

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While the reduction of sonar in these waters may not seem to be a particularly impactful decision, experts note tragic historical examples in which animals like dolphins, whales, and other marine life have had their habits disrupted, or have been severely injured or even killed as a result of such activity. Not only can the sonar be confusing to animals attempting to feed or communicate with one another, the Navy notes that some 155 whales and dolphins have died as a result of training exercises in the waters around Hawaii and Southern California. In a recent 2011 incident, four dolphins died as a result of a training-related explosion.

Other naval estimates suggest that the use of sonar, and such explosives, could result in up to 11,000 serious injuries among marine animals on the east coast and some 2,000 along the west coast.

While the battle has been won in this particular region, wildlife advocates like the The Natural Resources Defense Council insist that they will press on in their efforts to greatly reduce the use of sonar in other areas as well, including the Pacific Northwest, the Gulf of Alaska, and northern Florida. And happily, the Navy seems to be on board.