The United States Navy is set to limit its testing of sonar technology in the Pacific in order to protect whales and dolphins from its potential adverse effects.

The Armed Forces branch signed an agreement this week issued by a federal court judge that effectively prohibit the use of sonar and other forms of training that can cause harm to various marine creatures. The limitation covers areas of the ocean near California and Hawaii.

Cetacean scientists and conservationists, who have long lobbied for the Navy and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to stop harmful testing in the Pacific, celebrated the news of the signed agreement. The NMFS is responsible for keeping marine mammals, such as dolphins, seals sea lions and whales, safe from such human activities.

David Henkin, legal representative of the environment group Earthjustice, said that by signing the agreement, the U.S. Navy recognizes that there is no need to use every part of the ocean to conduct training.

He said that Armed Forces branch can also take practical steps to help lessen the deadly toll that its activities have caused.

Based on the settlement, the U.S. Navy will cease all of its sonar tests and training exercise as well as its use of explosives in areas identified as habitats for marine mammals in the waters of southern California and the Hawaiian Islands.

The areas covered by the prohibition are considered to be crucial for the feeding, reproduction and migration of marine animals. These include waters off the coast of San Diego, where blue whales typically feed, and those between San Nicolas Island and Santa Catalina Island, where rare beaked whales can be found.

Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) representative Zak Smith said that the agreement does not mean that the U.S. Navy has to significantly reduce the amount of training that it has to do. He said that it simply means the Navy cannot conduct its testing in specific areas that are considered biologically important.

The NRDC, along with several other environment groups, has urged the Navy to develop safer methods of conducting its explosive training and other such activities since the 1990s.

Marine experts have also questioned the mid-frequency sonar exercises that the Navy carries out, which they believe was causing harm to the whales and other marine creatures in the Pacific.

In 2000, the suspicions of the scientists were confirmed when over a dozen whales were discovered beached and dying in the Bahamas. An investigation by the government subsequently found that the cause of the event is linked to sonar training by the U.S. Navy.

Photo: Nestor Galina | Flickr

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