A Win For The Whales: Navy Agrees To Limit Sonar Use

Sep 19, 2015
Originally published on September 19, 2015 3:55 pm

As part of a legal settlement with environmental groups, the U.S. Navy has agreed to limit their use of sonar in certain areas off California and Hawaii that are whale habitats. NPR's Arun Rath speaks with Joshua Horwitz, author of War of the Whales.

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This week, a settlement in the 20-year-long battle between the U.S. Navy and whale advocates. The Navy has agreed to limit its use of sonar and underwater explosives off the coast of California and Hawaii. Joshua Horwitz wrote about this conflict in his book "War Of The Whales," and joined us earlier this week from Barcelona. He started by explaining the key dispute in these lawsuits - the Navy's use of active sonar.

JOSHUA HORWITZ: This originated from the Navy's need - going back to the Cold War - to track enemy submarines in dark ocean depths. And so to do that, they've resorted to using active sonar, which bounces sound waves off of objects in the ocean. And if whales are there, particularly in a closed environment like an underwater canyon, it can cause hemorrhages in the brain and bleeding through the eyes and the ears and, in the most extreme case, it could be lethal.

RATH: So help us understand what this settlement is. If it's not stopping this testing, it's just limiting it?

HORWITZ: Yes. Well, this whole 20-year legal battle is over the use of sonar in training. No one has ever contested the Navy's need to use sonar in battle situations. However, for training exercises, the environmentalists and conservation groups have tried to get the Navy to agree to limit their use in whale habitats, when whales are present, and that's what this case has mostly been about.

RATH: So given that they've been making an argument against it for 20 years, why is the Navy yielding on this point now?

HORWITZ: I think the reason the Navy is - has been willing to make accommodations on this round that they haven't been previously prepared to do is that they're under increased pressure in the context of the Asia pivot to be more prepared and have more flexibility to coordinate international naval exercises in the Pacific. In the past, there have been injunctions that have actually prevented them from initiating exercises like the RIMPAC exercises, which are held in the summer and now involve up to two dozen international navies. So you actually have had the situation historically where you have hundreds of warships that have convened in Hawaii for training exercises where they're just idling at sea waiting for the two sides to negotiate an agreement. So I think another factor is that there's a new generation of fleet commanders who are more pragmatic, and it's in their interest to get past this legal war of attrition they've been bogged down in.

RATH: Now these restrictions only apply, though, to a relatively small piece of the ocean and the U.S. Navy, and there's a lot of ocean and other countries with huge navies, who I imagine might want to do this kind of testing - Russia, China. How much of a difference will this make for whales in the big scheme of things?

HORWITZ: Well, I think that the significance is that the Navy has really crossed the Rubicon in terms of their position on what they can and can't do to accommodate marine mammals during their training. So let's hope that those will extend all the way up both coasts and the Gulf of Mexico, but it's still very significant because of - it's the U.S. Navy, and they are by far the biggest.

RATH: That's Joshua Horwitz. His book, "War Of The Whales," explains the decades long struggle over sonar testing in the ocean that led to the settlement this week. Joshua, thanks very much.

HORWITZ: Thank you, Arun. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.