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Navy heeds call to save marine life

A deal between the US Navy and environmental groups limits active sonar use.

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Out around the Hawaiian Islands this month, 41 warships from eight Pacific Rim nations are practicing naval warfare. Among other things, they're looking for "enemy" submarines lurking in shallow waters where they're harder to find.

But ships' officers and crew will be scanning the ocean just as closely for something else: whales and dolphins that may be harmed by the active sonar used to find enemy subs.

This is after a flurry of legal activity over the RIMPAC ("Rim of the Pacific") naval exercises under way near Hawaii came to a head Friday, when the National Resources Defense Council and other environmental groups settled a case with the Navy over halting the use of sonar.

Under the settlement, sonar may be used as part of RIMPAC. But the Navy may not use active sonar within 25 miles of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Marine National Monument, the nature preserve recently established by President Bush. Aircraft spotters and sailors aboard ship will watch for whales as well as listen for them using underwater microphones.

"This is a significant step forward in the protection of our oceans," said Richard Kendall, an attorney working with NRDC and representing the International Fund for Animal Welfare, the Cetacean Society International, the Ocean Futures Society, and Jean-Michel Cousteau.

After the NRDC sued to stop the use of sonar, the Defense Department argued the exercises were important to national security, and granted the Navy a six-month exemption from restrictions under the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act.

But citing "considerable convincing scientific evidence demonstrating that the Navy's use of ... sonar can kill, injure and disturb many marine species," federal Judge Florence-Marie Cooper in Los Angeles issued a temporary restraining order blocking the Navy's sonar exercises.

Indeed, for years there's been a debate on sonar's impact on marine mammals.

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