In June, President Obama signed an executive order that vastly expands the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument. It will create the world’s largest marine reserve, placing 782,000 square miles of ocean off-limits to commercial fishing and oil and gas exploration.
But perhaps not off-limits to U.S. Navy sonar exercises.
When President George W. Bush designated the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Marine National Monument in 2006 and the Marianas Trench Marine National Monument in 2009, he also granted the U.S. Navy an exception to the ban on environmentally destructive activities inside these sanctuaries. This special “carve-out” allows the Navy to conduct antisubmarine sonar trainings inside the marine equivalents of national parks.
Now is the time for President Obama to step up and designate this expanded national monument as a true sanctuary for vulnerable marine life. At highest risk are the deep-diving whales that are ubiquitous in these pristine waters. These whales have repeatedly mass-stranded in the wake of high-intensity naval sonar exercises around the world.
A few months ago, during joint antisubmarine exercises among the U.S., Israeli, and Greek navies, at least five beaked whales stranded and died on the coast of Crete. As graphic photographs of dead whales in the bloody shallows circulated on the Internet, a team of Greek veterinary pathologists rushed to the scene to retrieve fresh organ samples for analysis. The autopsies found hemorrhaging inside the whales’ internal organs, bleeding from the ears, and tissue evidence of decompression-like sickness seen in other deep-diving whales following rapid ascent. They echo the grim reports from prior mass strandings linked to naval war games in the Caribbean, the Mediterranean, and elsewhere. Given the history of sonar strandings in the region, some Greek biologists have despaired at the fate of that population of whales.
As I recount in my new book, War of the Whales, the Navy’s conflict with whales reached the courtroom years ago, when environmentalists began challenging the use of whale habitats for training exercises with sonar and explosives. The Natural Resources Defense Council first went to court in 1994 to prevent the Navy from detonating 10,000-pound bombs during “ship shock” tests in the whale-rich Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary off the California coastline. In the years that followed, NRDC filed a series of lawsuits under the Marine Mammal Protection Act and other federal statutes to limit the Navy’s sonar trainings in areas of vital importance to whales.
After suffering a string of court losses and being repeatedly found in violation of federal conservation laws, the Navy agreed to conduct comprehensive environmental impact statements on all of its U.S. coastal ranges and to implement some risk reduction procedures during exercises. The Navy does not, however, perform comprehensive environmental reviews prior to exercises in foreign waters—which may explain why strandings like those on Crete are still occurring. And on the Navy’s U.S. ranges, some whale populations are showing signs of decline, leading NRDC and another environmental group, Earthjustice, to file suit this year to halt Navy exercises off the California and Hawaii coasts.
This week marks the beginning of the massive Rim of the Pacific war games hosted by the U.S. Pacific Fleet in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. These monthlong joint exercises deploy 47 warships from 22 foreign navies, six submarines, more than 200 aircraft, and 25,000 sailors. Ten years ago, during 2004 RIMPAC exercises involving high-intensity sonar, 200 melon-headed whales panicked and fled into Hanalei Bay. Citing this incident, NRDC went to court in 2006 and won an emergency injunction that delayed the start of that summer’s RIMPAC war games until the U.S. Navy agreed to limitations on its sonar exercises.