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US Navy disagrees with restriction of sonars for protection of whales

The U.S. Navy is challenging Hawaii's authority to protect whales by restricting the use of sonar during training exercises, environmentalists and military representatives say.

The Hawaii Coastal Zone Management Program, responsible for managing resources in state waters, asked the Navy in a May 22 letter to keep mid-frequency active sonar levels below 145 decibels and abide by sonar rules crafted by a federal judge for undersea warfare exercises off Hawaii.

In February, U.S. District Court Judge David Ezra barred the Navy from conducting its undersea exercises within 12 nautical miles, or 13.8 miles (22.2 kilometers), of Hawaii's shoreline. Hawaii wants the Navy to follow Ezra's rules during all warfare drills near the islands and not just undersea exercises.

The Navy responded last week that doing so would prevent it from training its sailors properly. It also questioned whether Hawaii has the authority to use state law to enforce federal marine mammal protections.

"These conditions create a significant conflict with the Navy's obligations under U.S. federal law that the Navy provide trained and ready forces," the Navy said in a letter to the coastal management agency.

It indicated, however, that it was willing to discuss the matter with the state.

Earthjustice, which filed the lawsuit resulting in Ezra's sonar rules, said in a news release Wednesday that the Navy is relying on outdated legal reasoning in questioning the state's jurisdiction over marine mammal protections.

"We don't believe the stance they're taking is valid legally. Their response is based on bad law that has been voided," said Koalani Kaulukukui, an Earthjustice lawyer.

Environmentalists argue that mid-frequency active sonar can disrupt whale feeding patterns, and in the most extreme cases can kill whales by causing them to beach themselves. But scientists aren't sure why sonar affects some species more than others. They also don't fully know how it hurts whales.

The Navy acknowledges sonar may harm marine mammals but says it takes steps to protect whales.

The Supreme Court agreed Monday to review a federal appeals court ruling that limited the use of sonar, or sound waves, in naval training exercises off Southern California's coast because of the potential harm to marine mammals.

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