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Regulators: Navy may train with sonar off Hawaii

Regulators: Navy may train with sonar off Hawaii

Federal regulators this month gave the Navy permission, good for one year, to train with sonar in Hawaii waters.
The Navy warned its exercises may, though weren't expected to, harm or kill whales and other marine mammals.
The National Marine Fisheries Service is currently considering similar Navy requests for the authority to train with mid-frequency active sonar in waters off Southern California, the East Coast and the Gulf of Mexico.
The Marine Mammal Protection Act requires the Navy to ask for the fisheries service's permission to carry out activities that may affect marine mammals.
Scientists say sonar may harm, or in extreme cases kill, the animals. Some species _ particularly beaked whales _ appear much more vulnerable to sonar than others and scientists are not sure why.
The fisheries service said Monday it will reissue the one-year permit annually for the next five years so long as the Navy follows a list of measures to protect the animals. The Navy must reapply for permission if it wants to continue to train with sonar after 2014.
The authorization also allows the Navy to set off bombs and fire guns during Hawaii drills.
For the past two years, the Pentagon has used another federal law _ the National Defense Authorization Act _ to exempt the Navy from the permit requirements.
The Defense Department said then the Navy needed time to study how sonar affects the environment before it sought regulators' permission to use the technology.
The Navy has spent the past few years conducting environmental studies for underwater training ranges around the country.
The fisheries service is requiring sailors to shut off their sonar when marine mammals are nearby, use extra caution near Maui where humpback whales breed and calve, and avoid detonating explosives within certain areas.
The fisheries service said it carefully balanced the need to protect marine mammals with the Navy's need to maintain military readiness.
Paul Achitoff, an Earthjustice attorney in Honolulu who has sued the Navy over sonar in the past, said Tuesday that the fisheries service should have required the Navy to do more.
"What the National Marine Fisheries Service is doing is basically the same as the status quo, which is to allow the Navy to conduct sonar exercises with a minimum of precautions," Achitoff said. "The fisheries service has acceded to the demands of the Navy with little critical oversight."
Achitoff said Earthjustice was examining the fisheries service's decision to determine whether it should be challenged in court.
Sailors use sonar to track enemy submarines. Sonar operators send pulses of sound through the ocean and then listen for objects the sound bounces off of. They try to single out submarines from those objects.
Scientists say the sound may disrupt the feeding patterns of marine mammals. The sound may also startle some species of whales, causing them to surface rapidly.
The importance of sonar to the military has been growing even as concerns about the environmental effects of sonar have increased.
The Navy is in particular worried about being able to track a growing fleet of quiet diesel-electric submarines _ owned by China, Iran and North Korea among other countries _ that are difficult to spot and follow underwater.
The U.S. Pacific Fleet made sonar training a top priority in 2005.