Navy expands zone limiting sonar testing around county

John Van Name, an environmental planner for the U.S. Navy Pacific Fleet, and Victoria Bowman, a marine resource specialist for the National Marine Mammal Foundation, speak with Mary Johnson of Peahi on Tuesday at Maui High School. The Maui News / CHRIS SUGIDONO photo

John Van Name, an environmental planner for the U.S. Navy Pacific Fleet, and Victoria Bowman, a marine resource specialist for the National Marine Mammal Foundation, speak with Mary Johnson of Peahi on Tuesday at Maui High School. The Maui News / CHRIS SUGIDONO photo

KAHULUI — The U.S. Navy has expanded its no-sonar-testing zone around Maui County by about 50 percent, according to its latest draft environmental impact statement for personnel and weapons systems training between Hawaii and California, officials said Tuesday.

The training involves the use of active sonar and explosives while taking measures to protect marine species. The U.S. Pacific Fleet accepted comments and gave a brief presentation at Maui High School.

The deadline for public comment on the draft environmental impact statement is Dec. 12.

Navy officials said there were no fundamental changes to training and exercises, but new geographical protection areas have been added throughout the islands. Maui County’s protection zone, which has existed for years within the waters of the county’s four islands, has been extended around Molokai and Maui from November to April. Previous protections began in December.

Explosives testing is still permissible within the area, officials said.

Navy biologist Julie Rivers said that the extension helps protect an important reproduction area for marine mammals, including the endangered false killer whale.

Beaked whales in Hawaii and blue whales in California are other species the Navy is monitoring, Rivers said.

“While our research hasn’t shown that the whales are responding to sonar and are swimming right back to the source often, we’ve shown that we can do something that helps them in the areas that are most abundant,” Rivers said.

She said that marine life and densities have increased over the years thanks to federal protections and Navy mitigations. The increases in whale and dolphin populations will not alter activities but would likely trigger more stoppages of sonar testing, she said.

“If there’s more marine animals, you’re going to be mitigating more often because every time you see something you’ll have to shut down,” she said.

The study is part of the Navy’s application for weapon systems training and exercises permits under the Marine Mammal Protection and Endangered Species acts. The permits last five years, and the current one ends in 2018.

While the permits have continuously been renewed for decades, environmental groups have lobbied the Navy to study the effects of sonar and explosive training on whales, dolphins, turtles and other marine life. In 2015, a federal court ruled that the Navy failed to consider restricting military exercises in biologically important areas to reduce harm to marine mammals.

Machine-gun fire, torpedoes and mine detonation are some of the weapons tested, but many groups have focused on the effects of sonar. Some research has shown that whales may swim hundreds of miles, rapidly change their depth or beach themselves to avoid sonar, according to Scientific American magazine.

EIS Project Manager Alex Stone said that the vast majority of impacts from Navy sonar and weapons exercises are temporary changes in behavior of marine mammals. The Navy estimates that less than 0.03 percent of all mammals affected would be injured, die or lose hearing.

Stone added that highly trained Navy lookouts and other personnel survey areas for any life before testing. He said no testing is done if an animal is within 200 yards of a vessel.

A handful of residents attended Tuesday’s meeting and some showed distrust of the Navy.

Anne Marie Walker of Pukalani said that the Navy has acknowledged its damage to marine life but is not doing enough prevent future effects.

“I live in a place I wish would remain protected,” Walker said. “I think they should go out to test. I mean, why do they have to be close to the islands?

“I’m not going to agree with it out of fear.”

Comments can be sent to www.HSTTEIS.com or via U.S. mail to Naval Facilities Engineering Command Pacific; Attention: HSTT EIS/OEIS Project Manager; 258 Makalapa Drive, Suite 100; Pearl Harbor 96860-3134.

All public comments must be postmarked or received online by Dec.12 to be included in the Navy’s final environmental impact statement.

The draft environmental documents are available at the Kahului Public Library.

* Chris Sugidono can be reached at csugidono@mauinews.com.

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