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By Melissa Tanji

MAUI, Hawaii (The Maui News, Jan. 24) – Maui marine conservationists were critical Tuesday of a decision to grant the U.S. Navy a two-year exemption from the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

"That’s tragic," said Hannah Bernard, a marine biologist who learned about the decision from The Maui News. "I think it’s quite unfortunate. We have some of the best environmental laws in the world," said Bernard, who is also president of the Hawaii Wildlife Fund.

[PIR editor’s note: The U.S. Defense Department on Tuesday exempted the Navy from having to comply with the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act for the next two years so sailors may practice tracking submarines with sonar. Navy officials said they need the exemption, which is allowed under the 2004 National Defense Authorization Act, to give them enough time to conduct environmental impact statements for sonar use at major underwater training ranges. The Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary, which includes most nearshore waters surrounding all the Hawaiian islands, is home to migrating Humpback whales.]

Bernard said the Marine Mammal Protection Act was passed by Congress 30 years ago, and she is disturbed to see it set aside to allow the military to conduct its exercises in any areas of the ocean.

"It’s just really sad," she said. "Are we in such state of immediate threat and danger that we have to sacrifice the health of our oceans? I don’t think so."

Alison Cohan, conservation committee co-chairwoman with the Pacific Whale Foundation, shared Bernard’s sentiments.

She said the foundation is "appalled" that the Department of Defense issued the exemption under the National Defense Authorization Act.

"The Marine Mammal Protection Act exists for a reason – to protect marine mammals. That includes the two dozen species of marine mammals that exist in Hawaii’s waters," she said in a written statement. "Under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, these animals are to be protected without unnecessary harm and death."

Cohan said the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration should step up to protect the endangered marine mammals as "they are mandated to do so."

The exemption will be for two years to allow sailors to continue sonar tracking exercises while the Navy prepares an environmental impact statement on the effects of sonar. Sonar exercises are conducted at underwater training ranges off Hawaii, Southern California and the East Coast.

Opponents of the sonar use argue that the high levels of the sound waves sent through water can harm whales and dolphins, which have sensitive hearing organs on which they rely. There have been a number of incidents in which pods of whales or dolphins have been found to be disoriented or apparently injured in an area where the Navy had been conducting sonar exercises, including a 2004 incident in which 200 melon-head whales beached themselves at Hanalei, Kauai, after two Navy ships fired their sonar as part of the RIMPAC naval exercise.

Bernard, who has been working on sonar issues since 1994 said she is concerned about the potential impacts on all marine life from loud sound waves. When sonar testing was conducted in 1998 off the Big Island, Bernard said there were no strandings, but researchers reported whales stopped singing and swam away from the testing area. Even if sonar use around the Pacific Missile Range off Kauai does not cause strandings, she said, there is a concern that continued use might cause whales, dolphins and other marine animals to move away from the Hawaii habitat.

"The whales are still coming here. They are still increasing in number," she said.

But the future of the whale and dolphin populations around Hawaii is uncertain if sonar testing continues, she said.

Cohan said that the foundation is urging NOAA to call on the Navy to halt sonar activities in Hawaii and complete environmental impact statements as required by law before continuing.

Naomi McIntosh, manager of the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary, referred questions about the sonar decision to NOAA officials responsible for permitting of potentially harmful activities.

But she said there will be discussions between NOAA and the Navy on what kind of exercises the Navy will be conducting in areas frequented by marine mammals.

She said government agencies will work together to address concerns, but it helps when the public expresses its concerns to the government.

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