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Editorial: Navy should find alternatives to threatening endangered species

A naval engagement of a different sort has been brewing for years between environmentalists and the United States Navy.

The Navy has been conducting sophisticated underwater sonar tests that have been shown to be harmful to whales and other marine life. The Navy, responding to the protests from groups such as the Natural Resources Defense Council and Earthjustice, says that the testing will probably kill 155 whales off of Hawaii and California during the next five years. Defenders of whales say that figure is much higher.

The sonar is designed to detect super-quiet new submarine shallow-water technology being deployed by countries such as Iran. The sonar obviously has national security implications. But it damages whales’ hearing, and can force the whales to surface too quickly.

These sonar waves can damage whales’ internal organs and possibly kill them. In a Dec. 24 statement, the Navy asserted that “in over 60 years of similar training and testing, there has been no evidence of major impacts to marine mammal populations.” That is all. Return to stations.

This debate is not new. We noted in an editorial in 2003 that the Navy simply had Congress rewrite the Marine Mammal Protection Act in order to avoid having to mitigate the damage.

Today, the Navy promises to designate a “humpback whale cautionary area” around Hawaii. But last August, the Navy rejected a call by the California Coastal Commission to stop the testing. Leaving the commission in its wake, the Navy said internal safety measures are perfectly adequate, thanks.

In mid-December, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration said the Navy’s steps would “mimimize the effect on marine mammals.” NOAA also noted that the Navy has promised to cease fire with its sonar and live fire exercises if any marine mammals are detected within “designated mitigation zones.” The oceanographic administration also intends to meet annually with the Navy to “discuss new science.”

Who will be monitoring those zones while the Navy is blasting away? Presumably Capt. Ahab is unavailable. Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead, right? Not in this case.

There are numerous studies that show that sonar and live fire tests can kill and injure endangered species. Environmental groups are not specifically objecting to the tests as a concept, but rather are asking for further analysis to make sure that mass whale beachings and strandings, such as the 200 melon-headed whales that came up in 2004 off Maui after Navy sonar tests, don’t happen again.

The Earthjustice suit asks that the Navy “consider alternatives that would allow the Navy to achieve its goals with less damage.”

We agree with the environmental groups’ shot across the bow: The Navy’s record in protecting this marine wildlife is, shall we say, dead in the water. The Navy’s job is to keep Americans safe. Obviously, that is its first and highest calling. But it also should find alternatives to threatening endangered species.